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“Get the sirens going, get the sirens going, I’m telling you!”
The sense of urgency, bordering on panic, was palpable. The brilliant blue springtime skies had become a malevolent, roiling mass of charcoal grays and diffuse blue-greens. The murky clouds heaved curtains of rain and a spattering of hail as storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski pulled alongside a police cruiser near Seventh Street and Black Cat Road on the south side of Joplin, Missouri. The doppler radar inside Jeff’s vehicle indicated an extremely intense circulation just minutes from town, but one look to the southwest left no doubt. Lowering from the sky to engulf the horizon was a massive, billowing cone of clouds. A scattering of debris soon followed, prompting Piotrowski to issue his desperate plea. By the time the sirens wailed to life, the single deadliest tornado in more than six decades had already begun its path of devastation.
• • •
April of 2011 had been the most active month of tornadoes in recorded history. Three major outbreaks pushed the monthly count to a staggering 758, obliterating the previous record of 542 set in May 2004. After the utter devastation of April 25-28, however, the large-scale weather patterns changed and conditions became less conducive for tornadoes. Several weeks passed with little activity, but by the third week of May the pattern had again begun to change. A low pressure system originating in the Gulf of Alaska dropped south to the West Coast before migrating north and east toward the Rocky Mountains. As the system ambled northward, a southerly flow pushed vast quantities of warm, moist air into the Southern and Central United States.
The system first made its presence known on Tuesday, May 17, as the hot, sticky air rose, condensed and ballooned into tall cauliflower-shaped clouds over eastern Colorado. The storms blew up quickly, dropping nickel-sized hail and spinning up a few brief tornadoes east of Denver. For the next several days unsettled weather continued, producing scattered thunderstorms, hail and a handful of tornadoes in Colorado and Kansas as the low plodded across the Rocky Mountains and toward the Northern Plains. As the week drew to a close, forecasters became increasingly concerned that the weekend could bring a more significant outbreak of severe weather.
As the weekend approached, an explosive chain of events began to take shape. A layer of air from the western United States, raked across the Rockies along with the incoming storm system, warmed and dried as it descended along the eastern slopes of the mountain range. An arid wind blew in more dry air from the Desert Southwest and the Mexican Plateau. This parched air mass drifted and slid into place over the Central and Southern Plains, lingering several thousand feet above the ground like a sturdy cap. Beneath it, the southerly flow that had piled up moisture for several days continued unimpeded. The air became soupy as the strong cap prevented the hot, humid air from rising, mixing and exploding into thunderstorms.
On the evening of May 21, a towering thunderstorm erupted southeast of Emporia, Kansas and began to rotate. Spurred on by an intensifying low-level jet, the supercell spawned a tornado near the small community of Reading. The tornado, later rated EF3, barreled into town just after 9:15 pm and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes and businesses along a ten-mile path. As the tornado bore down, 38 of the town’s residents survived by seeking refuge in the basement of the local United Methodist Church. Not everyone was so lucky. Fifty-three-year-old Don Chesmore was killed when the tornado destroyed his trailer on the east side of town. The storm system had claimed its first life, and the worst was yet to come.
• • •
The residents of Joplin, a former lead- and zinc-mining city chiseled from the rocks an fields of southwest Missouri’s Jasper County, awoke to balmy temperatures on a tranquil Sunday morning. The sun shone brightly against the sapphire sky, filtered though long, parallel lines of fluffy white cloud streets. Though seemingly innocuous, this phenomenon hinted at the strong instability in the atmosphere. Pockets of warm air, called thermals, rose high into the sky before bumping into the strong cap which still lingered above. The air cooled and spread out as it condensed into clouds, sinking back down and causing areas of subsidence in which no clouds could form. These alternating areas of cloud growth and subsidence were then organized by environmental wind shear, forming thin, wispy lines of organized cloud streets. Also evident on visible satellite north of Joplin was a subtle outflow boundary originating from the previous nights’ convection.
The low pressure system which had brought rough weather to the Plains continued its trek to the east, trailing a cold front and a dryline to the southwest as it moved across South Dakota and into southern Minnesota. The Storm Prediction Center issued an outlook for a Moderate Risk of severe weather that included the Joplin area — stretching from the Great Lakes to central Oklahoma — but there was little talk of the weather. The city of 50,000 buzzed with activity, with many anticipating the graduation ceremony for Joplin High School’s senior class in the afternoon. Sunday morning services began at churches across the city. Northwest of town, 40-year-old Rob Chappel and his wife Kristy discussed the day’s weather while their children played in the pool. Though he hoped his presence would not be needed, Rob’s responsibilities as the county coroner gave him good reason to keenly monitor the forecast.
Webb City resident Dean Wells left his home and headed to the Home Depot in Joplin where his shift was set to begin at 1:00 pm. The 59-year-old Army veteran had worked there for more than five years, eventually taking over as manager of the electrical department. His job allowed him the opportunity to meet new people and help others every day, something that he deeply enjoyed. Dean was well-known within the community, both for his extraordinary kindness and the flute-like whistling that he perfected while performing at local hospitals and nursing homes with his church’s singing group. The following day was to be he and his wife Sue’s 42nd wedding anniversary, something that both were very proud of.
• • •
At 1:30 pm, a tornado watch was issued for a large portion of southwest Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, southeast Kansas and northwest Arkansas, including the city of Joplin. Temperatures in the area had reached the low- to mid-80s and dew points breached 70 degrees. The atmosphere had become extremely unstable and the stage was set for explosive thunderstorm development.
URGENT – IMMEDIATE BROADCAST REQUESTED
TORNADO WATCH NUMBER 325
NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
130 PM CDT SUN MAY 22 2011
THE NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER HAS ISSUED A
TORNADO WATCH FOR PORTIONS OF
SOUTHWEST AND CENTRAL MISSOURI
EFFECTIVE THIS SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND EVENING FROM 130 PM UNTIL 900
TORNADOES…HAIL TO 4 INCHES IN DIAMETER…THUNDERSTORM WIND
GUSTS TO 70 MPH…AND DANGEROUS LIGHTNING ARE POSSIBLE IN THESE
DISCUSSION…EXPLOSIVE TSTM DEVELOPMENT IS EXPECTED WITHIN THE NEXT
ONE TO TWO HOURS ALONG COLD FRONT MOVING THROUGH SERN KS AND NERN OK. WARM SECTOR AIR MASS IS QUITE MOIST WITH DEWPOINTS IN THE LOWER 70S. WHEN COUPLED WITH STEEP MIDLEVEL LAPSE RATES… ENVIRONMENT HAS BECOME STRONGLY TO EXTREMELY UNSTABLE WITH MLCAPE OF 3000-5000 J/KG. THE PRESENCE OF 35-40 KT WLY DEEP-LAYER SHEAR WILL BE SUPPORTIVE OF SUPERCELLS CAPABLE OF DESTRUCTIVE HAIL. MOREOVER…SWRN EXTENSION OF A 30-35 KT SWLY LLJ WILL BE MAINTAINED ACROSS THE REGION…RESULTING IN EFFECTIVE SRH VALUES OF 150-250 M2/S2 AND AN ASSOCIATED TORNADO THREAT. A STRONG TORNADO OR TWO IS POSSIBLE.
The tornado watch, like the SPC outlook before it, caused little worry in Joplin. It was springtime on the Plains — tornado watches were simply a part of life. Despite the terrible tragedy wrought by tornadoes the previous month, most residents scoffed. Tornadoes? Not here. Not to us. At Missouri Southern State University, family, friends and other assorted well-wishers began streaming into the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. More than 450 students from Joplin High School’s senior class were awaiting the ceremony with a bittersweet mixture of nerves, excitement and wistfulness.
Five hundred miles to the north, the storm system had already sprung to life. An EF1 tornado brushed through northwestern Minneapolis, Minnesota, killing one person when a tree was snapped and fell onto a car. Shortly after, a strong EF2 tornado touched down near Riceville, Iowa. The tornado destroyed several farmsteads and left a wide swath of tree damage before dissipating 28 miles later north of the Minnesota town of Harmony. A broken line of cells spawned several other tornadoes across Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.
In order to gather more information on the rapidly changing atmospheric conditions, meteorologists at the Springfield, Missouri office of the National Weather Service prepared and released a special weather balloon sounding at 19z (2:00 pm). Radiosonde data revealed a potentially dangerous situation unfolding. The strong cap which had served to suppress convection throughout the day had begun eroding, while instability continued to climb ever-higher. Wind shear, which had been marginal for supercell development, was enhanced by a strengthening low-level jet near the surface. At the upper levels the winds were relatively weak, indicating that any supercells would likely be high-precipitation and extremely difficult to see from the ground.
Mike Griffin, one of NWS Springfield’s meteorologists, was mowing his lawn in the afternoon sun when he stopped to check the weather on his iPhone. What he found was not comforting. Fifty miles to the west in eastern Kansas, the cold front and dryline that trailed behind the low pressure system were growing nearer. Where the dryline and cold front merged in southeast Kansas, a secondary low pressure center had formed. Winds near the surface which had blown from the south for most of the day had begun to back, gusting in a more tornado-friendly southeasterly direction. A phone call from the office confirmed what Griffin had already guessed: trouble was coming.
• • •
A lone tower burst into the sky above Labette County in southeast Kansas. The tall mass of cloud mushroomed, quickly filling the horizon and casting a vast shadow over the farmlands. With every passing minute, more of the thick, hazy air near the surface rocketed upward and began to condense. Aided by the cold front and nearby mesoscale low, the storm vacuumed up more warm, moist air from the south to feed its voracious appetite. The newly-developed updraft began to spin. Rain lashed the dirt and grass below. As the supercell intensified, golfball-sized hail crashed to the earth. The cap had ruptured.
In Joplin, the school band played “Pomp and Circumstance” as the graduating seniors took their seats among the rows of folding chairs. Keith Stammer, Jasper County’s emergency management director, relaxed at home as he watched the Kansas City Royals play the St. Louis Cardinals. Monitoring the weather on his iPad, he began to grow concerned. The storms in Kansas were headed his way, and they were firing at just the right time to take advantage of peak daytime heating. He headed to the well-protected basement that was used as the town’s command center, prepared for what he hoped would be just another nasty thunderstorm.
As the supercell rumbled eastward, the turbulent airflow on its southern flank helped additional storms to explode into the sky. Outside of Columbus, Kansas, less than 30 miles west of Joplin, the dark maelstrom of clouds hurled baseball-sized chunks of ice at the ground. Lightning spidered through the sky, followed closely by booming thunder that rattled windows in the small town. As the new cells drifted northeast, something strange happened. Rather than being cut off, the original supercell ingested the incoming convection. The billowing storm grew stronger with the merger, tightening its circulation and growing rapidly in size. To the south, yet another storm blew up over Baxter Springs.
The tangled complex of storms began to deviate from its path, drifting east-southeast and becoming a “right-mover.” Helicity increased. Sheets of rain wrapped around the rotating core, the mesocyclone, obscuring the heaving, twisting mass within. Grass rippled like waves as the storm furiously inhaled the atmosphere around it. As the radar in Springfield emitted pulses in the direction of the storm, the returning echoes painted a confusing, conflicting picture. The storm was growing, that much was clear. But it had also become messy and disorganized. Radar operators could be forgiven for thinking the multiple cell mergers had taken their toll on the incoming mass of storms, but they knew better. Forecasters placed a call to Keith Stammer around 4:30 pm: storms are coming, you’d better be ready.
• • •
Just after 5:00 pm, Joplin High School’s graduation ceremony ended with a hail of maroon caps inside the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. Outside, the skies had become dull and leaden. In the east-facing parking lot, however, there was no obvious sign of the approaching threat. To the west, the signs were much clearer. The horizon to the west of the city had become choked with menacing black and drab green clouds. Jeff Piotrowski, who had been chasing the massive supercell practically since its birth in southeast Kansas, looked on with apprehension. About 15 miles west of Joplin, a lowering near the back of the storm began to rotate and stretch toward the ground. Even through the driving rain and wind, a funnel cloud — not yet touching the ground — was visible.
At 5:09 pm, the National Weather Service in Springfield issued a tornado warning for the large central cell of the storm complex, which appeared to have developed a hook echo about 13 miles west of Joplin. Weather Service meteorologists noted an eastward movement of 30 miles per hour, and estimated that the storm would eventually impact the northeast edge of Joplin. Moments later, Keith Stammer activated the 28 warning sirens stationed throughout the city. For most residents the alarm was scarcely worth noting. It was springtime in the Midwest, after all. Tornado sirens were to be expected. Three minutes after being activated — as per the city’s policy — the sirens were shut off.
Despite the worrisome weather approaching from the west, most citizens went about their business. Students, parents and teachers lingered at the athletic center or ventured out for a celebratory meal. Emergency department personnel at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, some winding down from 10 or 12 hours on the clock, cleaned up and prepared to head home for dinner. Other staff trickled in and readied for their evening shifts. Among them was Dr. Kevin Kikta, who’d begun his shift at 4:00 pm as one of two on-duty physicians in St. John’s emergency department. The intercom crackled to life, announcing that a tornado warning had been issued for the area. Still there was little concern.
Inside the rainy, wind-whipped mountain of clouds, things became even stranger. The small storm near Baxter Springs merged with the larger cell near the Missouri state line. At the Springfield weather office, meteorologists monitored the radar. A new scan revealed an apparently weakening northern cell, though the southern cell had developed and begun wrapping up tightly. The details were ambiguous at best, but the larger picture was clear. At 5:17, another tornado warning was issued by the Springfield office. Minutes later, a new radar scan depicted a developing hook echo along the storm’s southwest flank. Keith Stammer’s emergency operations center received a final phone call from the weather service. Whatever’s out there, it’s headed straight for Joplin.
• • •
Near Seventh Street and Black Cat Road in southwest Joplin, Jeff Piotrowski issued his frantic plea to the police officers monitoring the storm. At 5:31 pm, prodded on by information from Piotrowski and the Springfield NWS office, Stammer took the unprecedented step to activate the city’s sirens for a second time. The unusual second siren began to shake the city into action. Inside St. John’s, a “code gray” was issued. Doctor Kikta and the rest of the hospital’s staff began moving patients to the safest spots within the hospital. At Home Depot, Dean Wells could hear the sirens from inside the store. He’d noted the menacing sky and began heading for the doors when he received a call from his wife. She warned that a tornado was approaching, and he ought to take shelter. His reply was hardly surprising. I’m getting everybody to shelter. I’ll call you when everyone’s safe. I love you.
At 5:34 pm, ragged tendrils of cloud seemed to drop from the sky just inside the Missouri border near JJ Highway and Newton Road. The tangled, swirling mass began to grow almost immediately as it plowed through power lines and sent brilliant flashes of electric blue light into the air. Within 30 seconds the ephemeral wisps of condensation had become a wide, dark wedge of wind and debris. Less than a minute later, the tornado had become a monstrous, seething tempest nearly three-quarters of a mile wide. As it roared east past Iron Gate Road and on to Schifferdecker Avenue, several well-built wood and brick homes were heavily damaged. Many vehicles in the area were tossed and rolled, some thrown into the rubble of homes and other buildings. Damage in this area was rated at EF3.
On Schifferdecker Avenue, 18-year-old Will Norton and his father Mark were driving home from graduation, where Will had just received his diploma. Nicknamed “Willdabeast,” Norton was set to attend the prestigious Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University as a film major in the fall. A short distance from home, the tornado bore down on his black Hummer H3. Will began reciting scripture before he was ripped through the sunroof. His father Mark was trapped in the vehicle as it was heaved and tumbled by the fury of the wind, coming to rest a short distance away as a mangled mess. Though he survived, it would take the Jaws of Life for first responders to extract him from the wreckage.
The tornado continued to widen and rapidly intensify as it tracked just north of east at approximately 25 miles per hour. Rows of homes and small commercial buildings were leveled just east of Schifferdecker Avenue. Vehicles were again tipped, rolled and thrown from parking lots and roads. Several were wrapped around trees or thrown into the remains of buildings. Several homes were splintered and swept from their foundations along Jefferson and South Monroe Avenues. To the west of the intersection of West 26th Street and McClelland Boulevard, several medical buildings were demolished. On West 27th Street, a well-constructed brick office building was completely demolished.
• • •
At 5:43 pm, the radar in Springfield completed a new scan. At the National Weather Service, the room fell silent. Meteorologists stared somberly at the radar displays as the storm that had been a messy blob a short time earlier had transformed into a horrifying, well-defined hook. A large, round blob of lavender sat directly over the south side of Joplin. Shards of wood and glass, pieces of vehicles, scraps of papers, furniture and everything else that had represented daily life in the city was whipping violently through the air and reflecting the pulses of energy emitted by the radar. The lavender ball indicated the massive cloud of debris, lofted as high as 20,000 feet by the churning tornado. At about the same time, a security guard at St. John’s Medical Center burst into the hospital. Take cover! We are about to get hit by a tornado!
In a parking lot just west of St. John’s, 300-pound concrete parking stops which had been rebarred to the asphalt were ripped up and tossed as much as 60 yards by the extremely intense low-level winds. Several vehicles, including tractor-trailers, were lofted and tumbled several hundred yards and wrapped around debarked and denuded trees. In the hospital parking lot, some were so badly damaged that some St. John’s staff could not locate and identify their vehicles. A life flight helicopter was blown from the top of the hospital and destroyed. Steel trusses and support beams from nearby structures were crushed, mangled and twisted. St. John’s itself was heavily damaged. Virtually every window was smashed, and the intense winds damaged or destroyed many interior walls, floors and ceilings. Engineers later ruled the building structurally unsound.
East of McClelland Boulevard the tornado neared peak intensity as it expanded to more than three-quarters of a mile wide. Near the center of the tornado’s path the devastation was total. Block after block of homes were crushed, ripped apart and swept from their foundations, their wood frames smashed and disintegrated into small pieces. Much of the resulting debris became airborne projectiles, impaling any remaining structures and embedding deeply into open grassy areas like lawn darts. Steel-reinforced concrete porches were damaged and deformed. Scraps of wood, branches and in some cases whole timbers were driven deeply into or through vehicles, standing walls and other exposed surfaces. In several areas, well-sealed manhole covers weighing more than 100 pounds were pulled from the ground and tossed away. Some of the covers were reportedly never found.• • •
On South Moffett Avenue, staff members at Greenbriar nursing home scrambled to rush the 80-plus residents into central hallways and other designated safe areas as the sirens wailed outside. Fifty year old staff member Keith Robinson used his body to shelter two elderly residents as the roar of the tornado grew. The windows shattered. Debris, ranging in size from branches and scraps of wood to parts of vehicles, began pelting the walls and roof. The 200-plus mile per hour winds were too much for the building, and the ceiling and parts of the walls caved in as the roof peeled away. Twenty-one of the nearly 100 people inside were killed. Keith Robinson was later found in the rubble, his arms still clutching the two residents he’d tried to protect.
At 25th Street, Father Justin Monaghan dove into a bathtub inside the rectory at St. Mary’s Church as the tornado bore down. The church, as well as several associated school buildings, were demolished in a matter of moments. Only the large steel cross and some of the supporting structures were left standing. Father Monaghan’s quick thinking saved his life, as he was later pulled from the rubble without injuries. As the tornado continued eastward, many wood-framed homes were leveled and swept away. Irving Elementary School was destroyed. In the area around South Main Street, a number of two- and three-story apartments and multiple commercial buildings were demolished. The tornado maintained its intensity as it tracked east roughly parallel to East 24th Street.
At 2302 Iowa Avenue, 51-year-old Mark Lindquist tried to remain calm. He and his co-worker, Ryan Tackett, were tending to three developmentally disabled young men when the warnings began echoing through the streets. As they reassured the boys that the sirens were simply part of a tornado drill like so many they’d rehearsed before, they began to look for whatever safety they could find. They tore mattresses from the bedrooms and covered the boys to shelter them from debris. Mark and Ryan laid themselves atop the mattresses. Like so many others across Joplin, they selflessly acted to sacrifice themselves to protect the people they cared about. The tornado struck at peak ferocity, tearing the roof from the walls and smashing the home to pieces. Mark was ripped from the home and tossed by the wind. First responders found no sign of Mark in the home. Ryan was found with minor injuries. The three young men — Mark Farmer, Tripp Miller and Rick Fox — did not survive.
Rows of homes along Missouri, Iowa and Indiana Avenues were razed to the ground. Franklin Technical Center was obliterated. Joplin High School, too, was irreparably damaged. As the tornado rumbled eastward, a Dillon’s grocery store was damaged and partially collapsed. More than thirty patrons and workers survived after being huddled into a walk-in freezer by a manager. A group of two-story apartments were left in piles of rubble. Near Connecticut Avenue, the local Commerce Bank was completely obliterated and swept from its foundation. The only thing left standing at the bank was a damaged steel-reinforced concrete bank vault. Extreme damage continued to the east of the bank, where dozens of homes, industrial buildings and churches were decimated.
• • •
The tornado was again near peak intensity as it thundered into Joplin’s main business section along South Range Line Road. At Home Depot, Dean Wells had shepherded more than a dozen people to the safest areas inside the store. As the cacophony of wind bore down, he sprinted to the front of the store once more to guide the last of the customers to safety. The big-box store was no match for the fury of the wind, and a large exterior wall collapsed on Wells as he led two children to safety. All three were killed. The tornado continued to annihilate well-constructed buildings and tore apart several additional retail and industrial buildings including Sports Academy, Walmart, Cummins Central Power and a Pepsi distribution center. Steel-framed warehouses were leveled in this area, with anchoring pulled from the ground and steel beams bent and twisted.
Wind rowing and ground scouring were again evident in this area, indicating extreme winds. Fields near the Pepsi distribution center were scoured out, leaving behind muddy clumps of sod and dirt. Vehicles from nearby parking lots were rolled and lofted several hundred yards, including one which was thrown more than 300 yards from the Home Depot parking lot into the remains of the store itself. Tractor trailers from Walmart were tossed several hundred yards into the store and the Pepsi distribution center. At Pizza by Stout, large sections of the parking lot were torn from the ground and littered downstream by the intense low-level winds. The restaurant was wiped out, and a chair from the dining area was later found embedded legs-first into the wall of the Academy Sports building. Some asphalt scouring also occurred at Walmart parking lot.
The tornado finally began to weaken as it crossed South Duquesne Road, where multiple homes and warehouses were damaged or destroyed in EF3 to EF4 fashion. Some ground scouring and wind rowing was still evident in this area. The tornado shrank to about a half mile wide as it began to drift slightly south of east. Many vehicles were thrown from the road as the tornado crossed Interstate 44 and continued to weaken. A narrow path of EF0 to low-end EF2 damage continued for several more miles, damaging homes and snapping trees to the southeast of town. Finally, after a 38-minute, 22.1-mile trek through the residential heart of the city, the Joplin tornado dissipated just east of the town of Diamond.
• • •
Jeff Piotrowski turns onto Iowa Avenue in disbelief. The city of Joplin, it seems, is gone. Where a thriving community had been just moments earlier, rubble piles and clean foundations stretch from horizon to horizon. Stepping out of his vehicle to render what aid he can, he is immediately besieged by desperate screams from all sides. Bodies are strewn across front yards and driveways. There are no landmarks left, no indication of where one home ends and another begins. Mangled vehicles dot the area like crumpled pieces of paper. Dozens, possibly hundreds of people lay dead or dying, and there is no sign of help.
At St. John’s, chaos reigns. Staff who were in the hospital when the tornado hit begin to dig themselves and their patients from the rubble. Almost immediately, the wounded begin to stream in. Teenage girls in blood-soaked summer dresses, many fresh from graduation, limp through the massive hole that was once the emergency entrance. More people come from nearby Cunningham Park. Minutes later, the first cars arrive. The injured are carried in on doors, sheets of plywood and any other makeshift stretchers available. The dead and dying are shuttled to the hospital in the beds of pickup trucks and the back seats of any cars that will run. Blood runs in rivulets and pools on the floor. Across the city, doctors and nurses begin to hear the news that the hospital has been hit. They rush to the hospital to lend their expertise. At nearby Freeman West, the staff begin preparations for a massive triage operation.
Plunged into darkness, Dr. Kevin Kikta and his team work with flashlights. The tornado has destroyed much of the equipment and supplies normally available to them, and the number and severity of the injuries is almost beyond imagination. A baby has a neck wound so deep that his spine is visible. A young man is bristling with so much embedded debris that he looks like a porcupine, and his chest cavity has been punctured. Dr. Kikta springs into action, cutting through his chest to the ribs and jabbing a chest tube through the thick muscle. There’s a rush to transport the most seriously wounded to Freeman West, where the staff has access to desperately needed supplies. Triage centers are opened across the city to deal with the massive influx of wounded.
Though Coroner Rob Chappel was relieved not to have received a phone call after the storm, he grew increasingly anxious. He dialed the numbers for emergency dispatchers, but the call would not connect. The Sheriff’s Department, too, could not be reached. The radio began to crackle with bits of information from Joplin. Walmart may have been hit. Home Depot, too. There’s damage on the south side of town. St. John’s, the radio says, has been “leveled.” At about 7:00 pm, Rob grabbed his keys and headed south toward the emergency operations center. By the buzz of activity, it was clear something had happened. As he walked toward the door, an official confirmed his suspicions.
“Rob.. it’s bad.”
• • •
The Joplin tornado injured more than 1,100 and claimed 158 lives, ranking it the seventh-deadliest tornado in American history. Nearly 8,000 homes and hundreds of commercial and industrial buildings were damaged or destroyed, totalling nearly $3 billion in damages. The six-mile streak of damage through the heart of Joplin was among the most intense instances of urban damage ever recorded, and the area of EF4 or greater damage at times reached more than half a mile wide. A damage survey by the National Weather Service found that the maximum wind speeds within the tornado were in excess of 205 miles per hour, while some have suggested a peak wind speed of 225 to 250 mph.
Three days after the tornado, Will Norton’s body was found in a small roadside pond just feet from where he was ripped from his vehicle. The same day, a “John Doe” patient at an area hospital was identified as Mark Lindquist. He had been found more than two blocks from his original location, where he was thrown into the rubble of another home by the tornado. Despite suffering grave injuries and a rare, life-threatening fungal infection, Mark woke up after spending seven weeks in a coma. As Dean Wells’ daughter prepared for her father’s funeral, she rummaged through his desk in search of a recording of Dean whistling “Amazing Grace.” On a church program from shortly before the tornado, she noticed a short quote that her father had scribbled down. The eerily prophetic quote defined not only Dean, but countless others in Joplin on that Sunday afternoon in May.
“No greater sacrifice can be given than to give one’s life for another.“