Lauren Robertson’s email plea started out simple enough.
“Please help me find my hero from the night of the Joplin tornado.”
The Joplin mom described that Sunday night five years ago and how for several hours on May 22 she couldn’t find her young daughter, Brynn Driver. When the tornado hit, the kindergartner was with her dad, Josh Driver, inside a brick home west of town that was ripped apart by the storm.
There was a woman, a stranger, who stayed by Robertson’s side that evening as she searched for her daughter and waited for word. The woman helped Robertson dig into the rubble of the house and called her daughter’s name as they searched. She walked with Robertson to the hospital, Freeman Health System, and took charge, asking nurses to look for a little girl and her dad.
And, four hours later, when Robertson finally found Brynn at the hospital, with dirt and scrapes and bruises covering her body, she gave the woman a quick thank you and a hug.
“Almost 5 years have come and gone since I have seen this woman,” Robertson wrote to The Star on Tuesday. “But she has never left me. She was my real, living angel that night and even though it seems a distant blur and a nightmare that I have buried in the deepest crevice of my memory, I will never ever forget her warmth and selflessness she showed to me.”
By phone, Robertson later explained how she had waited years to try to find the woman. For so long, the emotions from that night and the fears that flooded her mind were too raw.
As the fifth anniversary neared, she figured it was time. Plus, in late December, as 2016 approached, she made two resolutions for the upcoming year.
She would run a marathon and “find my lady.”
The EF-5 tornado that destroyed a wide swath of Joplin also brought out kindness and courage in so many people. Strangers transported the injured to hospitals in their pickup beds and searched through debris hoping to find someone alive.
Bob Denton was at Freeman that night as director of emergency trauma services. More than 1,000 injured people flooded the hospital in the first 12 hours, many of them in critical condition, having been crushed or impaled. They lay traumatized and confused. Tornadic winds had stripped people of their clothes. Recognizing friends and loved ones, he said, became devilishly difficult.
Denton’s own administrative assistant was among the injured. He didn’t recognize her.
“I had no idea who she was,” Denton said.
For a stranger to stick by another stranger for hours, until mother found daughter, Denton said, speaks to the kind of selflessness that came to define so much of the storm’s aftermath.
“It gives you a sense of the humanity from that night,” Denton said of Robertson’s tale. “We heard a lot of stories similar to that over and over again in the days and weeks and months and years that followed.
“People who were injured — they would see other people who were more injured than they were — and they would try to help to console them. ‘Take this person ahead of me, because they need more help than I do.’ ”
As Robertson watched news of the tornado on television, she heard locations like Range Line Road and Home Depot, Wal-Mart. Those places were across town, far from where Brynn was.
It wasn’t until she drove to pick up her daughter in the southwest corner of town that she realized Brynn and her father were closer to the dangerous weather than she had thought. Because of downed power lines and debris, Robertson had to park her car a distance from the home where Brynn’s dad lived.
“The smell of natural gas filled the air,” Robertson wrote in her email. “Ambulance sirens rang. People were shouting for help. Landmarks were completely unrecognizable. Panic set in.”
The three-story brick home where Brynn had spent the night was gone.
“Whenever I ran up to the house, the first thing that I saw where the kitchen used to be was a plate of spaghetti and her little shoes sitting there,” Robertson said. “All I could think of was, ‘Oh my gosh, she was sitting here eating dinner when it hit.’ ”
Robertson began to feel sick and knelt on the ground. That’s when “my saving grace stepped in.”
The woman, who had gone to the area around Sunset Ridge neighborhood to check on a relative — Robertson remembers it being a brother or brother-in-law — came up to her and eventually helped her up.
The two frantically searched for Brynn in the rubble, and then the woman guided them to a nearby location where law enforcement officers were. They’d know what to do. They pointed the two to Freeman hospital, where many of the injured were being taken.
“She walked with me for 2 miles from the Sunset Ridge subdivision to Freeman Hospital,” Robertson wrote in her email. “She talked with me, asked me questions, tried to get my mind off of the unthinkable & kept me thinking positively.
“She held my hand as she walked through the sea of people in the emergency room that night; people who were injured, in pain, or like me, in search of a missing loved one in hopes that they might be there.”
Robertson said she’s more of a timid person. But the woman took charge, making sure Brynn and Josh Driver were on the “search list.”
The father and daughter didn’t appear to be patients, but the two women were told it wouldn’t hurt to wait because some people still hadn’t been treated.
The woman stayed with her.
Around 10 p.m., Robertson got a text. Brynn was OK, and she was in the hospital’s main lobby. Her dad was OK too.
“I briefly thanked this woman who had selflessly helped me find my baby,” Robertson wrote. “Then, I left her behind.”
Robertson remembers getting the woman’s name that night, but in the tumult forgot it. A few days after the tornado, the woman called Robertson’s dad at his insurance agency to see how the mother and daughter were doing.
But with the chaos in the office after the tornado, he failed to get a name or phone number.
In the years since, Robertson has tried to remember details. She recalls the woman saying she had been horseback riding that day in Baxter Springs, Kan. Her relative lived in the Sunset Ridge subdivision or nearby area.
“I thought maybe if I could share my story, it could be shared, and maybe she would read it,” Robertson told The Star. “And I could take her to dinner or something.”
Robertson is set to run her marathon on Saturday. Then her first New Year’s resolution will be in the bag.
“Now I just need to find my lady,” Robertson said. “… Every single person who went through (the tornado) has their story. And she’s a huge part of my story. When she tells her story, I’m sure I’m a huge part of hers.
“She probably thinks of me, too.”
Robertson wants to do anything she can to show her appreciation.
“I feel terrible I was never able to reach out to her after and tell her how her selfless act of kindness really helped me that night.”