Special Reports

Part three: A changed man in a changed Joplin community

The medical helicopter at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin lay crumpled in a parking lot on May 23, 2011, after a tornado that swept through the center of Joplin.
The medical helicopter at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin lay crumpled in a parking lot on May 23, 2011, after a tornado that swept through the center of Joplin. The Kansas City Star

Editor's note: Remembering Joplin five years after the tornado - from our files May 21, 2012.

Rob Chappel thought he could leave it behind.

When he walked out of the temporary morgue that Wednesday last June, he thought he would move on. His job with the tornado was done. The memories — some of the most intense and heartbreaking he has ever experienced — still would be there, but they would be tucked away.

Yet it hasn’t been that easy.

Every morning, as the Jasper County coroner makes his way to work, he passes a sea of white government trailers, a neighborhood built for people who lost their homes. He is forced to think of how his community has changed, and why.

Occasionally he’ll bump into someone who lost a friend or relative and who knows him only as the county coroner, and he knows he reminds them of the pain from May 22, 2011.

And even today, one year after the tornado, he has a file on his desk that he studies between his work and his typical coroner calls — the car crashes, drug overdoses, natural deaths and workplace accidents.

[ Part one: The Joplin tornado through a coroner's eyes ]

[ Part two: A coroner's nightmare ]

Inside the file are details of a man who died three months after the storm. The man’s home was destroyed that Sunday evening and he stayed there, through a cool and rainy night, to make sure looters wouldn’t take what little he had left.

He developed pneumonia in both lungs and died in August. Is he another victim of the tornado? Is he number 162?

“His family wants him counted,” says Chappel, who is waiting for more medical records before deciding. “I just don’t know at this point.”

One thing he already knows: He is more confident now. Stronger since the storm. More resolute.

That comes from facing what he faced. A natural disaster of historic proportions. Bodies of children, neighbors and the elderly. More death in one storm than he typically sees in a year.

And then a mistake, a misidentified body. It forced him to be more methodical, more meticulous before releasing victims to their families. That, then, created pain and frustration for grieving relatives.

In all, he and a team of specialists and investigators identified 124 bodies and released them to their families within 10 days. The tornado would eventually claim 37 more people who died in hospitals and nursing homes.

When the storm hit, he had only been coroner for 21/2 years. Soon he’ll start campaigning for another term. He faces an opponent in August’s Republican primary, a man who ran against him last time.

He doesn’t know what voters will make of him. Some probably still don’t know his name. Others may see him and think back to that time a year ago. He knows some may still carry resentment.

Although Chappel knows he’s a better coroner now, if he doesn’t win, that’s OK. He’ll deal with it.

If he’s learned anything in the last year, it’s that he can deal with whatever comes at him.

(File Video) David Vanderhoofven lost his wife, Darian and 13-month old son, Joshua, in the tornado that devastated Joplin on May 22, 2011. A few days later he told his story of that horrible night to The Kansas City Star.

Chappel no longer watches the news on TV. He just tunes in for the weather.

He hasn’t read newspaper stories about survivors or the people who came through his morgue. Not even articles about the community’s push to rebuild.

He gets enough reminders without looking for them.

He needs to keep a healthy distance. Not get too close. After spending half his life working around death, that’s how he copes.

“I don’t want to know too much,” Chappel says. “Or know too many personal details.”

He and wife Kristy talk about what he saw a year ago and what he did. Until now, he has only shared details with her and close friends. He says that agreeing to share his story, at this one-year mark, was tough, but a step he needed to take. Sharing his story would be healing for him and the community.

After the storm, Kristy was his sounding board at the end of long days. They talked about the chaos, the misidentified body and his determination to not let that happen again.

It felt good talking at home about what was going on in town, at the parking lot that first night and then in the makeshift morgue at the fertilizer warehouse.

“We knew he was doing it right,” Kristy says. “People were walking around in shock. Their house is gone. They’re disoriented, can’t find their loved one. That didn’t go away in a day or two.”

Rob and Kristy are a team. After the storm, she took frantic calls from people looking for relatives or close friends. Before she knew the extent of the storm, she would call Rob and try to get the information.

“You need to find this out for me because this lady really needs to know,” Kristy would tell her husband.

The coroner hopes time has eased some of the pain the identification process caused families.

“But I don’t think they’ve forgotten. It’s still there,” Chappel says. “They’ll look back and it will always be a frustration. And I understand that.”

He thinks he has dealt with the storm and everything he saw, worked through it along the way. She’s not so sure. It’s an awful lot to come to grips with in just a year.

As he talks, he drives his county-issued SUV to a cemetery where three storm victims are buried. Will Norton, 18, who was headed home from his high school graduation when winds sucked him out through his vehicle’s sunroof. A military veteran. And Sharyl Nelsen, the woman who was working at the AT store.

Chappel rounds a curve inside the cemetery and sees a man under the shade of a full weeping willow.

He’s sitting on a bench, his head tilted down at the grave in front of him.

It’s Chad Nelsen, Sharyl’s husband.

Sharyl loved weeping willows.

In the days after the storm, as her family prepared her funeral, Chad and a relative walked through the cemetery and saw this spot.

“We knew she’d love it,” Chad says.

On her gravestone is a picture of husband and wife.

He comes here nearly every day and sits on the bench, even if it’s just for five minutes.

Sometimes he talks to Sharyl, asks her for help in getting through a tough time. Or he tells her about the kids. No different than he would before the storm. Or he just sits there, enjoying time, just the two of them.

The last time they were together, the morning of the storm, he made her coffee to take to work and kissed her goodbye. Later that night they planned to go grocery shopping.

Instead, he would claw through debris to find her body.

A year later, the pain is still so fresh.

“That day I saw her (in the debris), I died along with her,” he says, his eyes covered by sunglasses. “I just go through the motions, you know. I go into dad mode.”

His disappointment at the system that kept him from taking custody of his wife’s body for four days also remains. Relatives went to family meetings where Chappel spoke, explaining the delay. They listened as he detailed the need for a methodical process.

But, Nelsen says, though it may sound selfish, his main worry was for his family. His wife.

“I’m still frustrated,” he says. “We looked so long for her.”

As Nelsen talks, Chappel slips away. He wants the man to be able to speak freely.

Hearing about Sharyl and the life she had with her family is hard for the county coroner. So is seeing the raw agony her husband still feels.

It makes it harder to keep that distance.

(File Video) Joplin resident Doug Keeney tells his story about how he survived the May 22, 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado.

Just before Chad leaves the cemetery this day, he approaches Chappel.

“I know you had a lot of people you dealt with, and you probably don’t remember my wife,” he tells Chappel. “But do you guys keep records, something that tells you a cause of death for each person? Something I could look at?”

Chappel’s records are comprehensive. Each victim’s information is kept in a manila envelope in a large box stored at the funeral home he and Kristy co-own with a friend.

In the days since the storm, he has used those records to answer questions about that night and help people file insurance claims.

It’s one reason he was so methodical, so he would have information one, two, three years down the road if a family needed it.

“Yes, we keep track of that,” Chappel tells Chad. “ But we didn’t do autopsies. We just made sure their injuries were consistent with the tornado. So many died of blunt-force trauma.”

He tells Nelsen that he remembers Sharyl.

“Her death, I believe, was immediate,” Chappel says. “I don’t think she suffered.”

Chad nods. The coroner tells him there are more details, written in her file, if he wants to hear them.

“Some people don’t want to know all that,” Chappel says.

Chad isn’t sure he will, but it’s good to know the facts are there.

“I just would like to know that she didn’t suffer.”

Before he turns to walk to his car, Nelsen takes the coroner’s number.

“When I’m ready, I may give you a call.”

A couple of families have come to Chappel and apologized for lashing out at family meetings a year ago. They now understand what he was doing. But will others see it the same way, feel the same empathy?

The truth is, Chappel is a different man now.

Kristy sees it, too.

“He’s more confident, more assertive.”

He says he also feels even more dedicated to easing families’ pain.

For now, until his primary campaign heats up, life is back to normal.

He holds family even closer, and he juggles work with home obligations, just as he did before.

Every day, some memory or some flash takes him back. He fights it, but knows it’s going to be like that for a while.

It’s something that he, as the Jasper County coroner, knows he’ll see time and time again.

On Wednesday, a 40-year-old man from Baxter Springs, Kan., was working on a water main in Joplin, an everyday job for a laborer at the Missouri American Water Co.

The man was using a saw to cut the pipe. The saw kicked back, cutting his neck.

He died in an emergency room.

As Chappel headed home to put dinner on, he got the call.