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May 23, 2011

Survivors spin tales of dread, loss after twister

The Associated Press

JOPLIN, Mo. — Officers from Joplin and several neighboring towns and counties manned virtually every major intersection in the city Monday. Ambulances continued to come and go, sirens blaring. Making matters worse: Another severe storm rolled in mid-morning, bringing thunder, lightning and moderately high winds and brief hail.

The storm slowed the recovery effort, but firefighters continued going door-to-door, sifting through what remained of even the most damaged homes. Firefighter Kyle West came to Joplin from nearby Carterville to help with the search and rescue. West gingerly stepped into a small frame home, just to make sure no one was inside.

"We're searching everything, just in case," he said.

The tornado blew out most of the front of the house, tore off the siding, knocked down several trees and a power line was draped over the yard. Inside, a mattress in the bedroom stood on end. A living room couch was upside down. Kitchen chairs were thrown outside. The couple of trees that survived had the bark and all leaves ripped away, metal or tin debris stuck on branches 30 feet off the ground. A car was on its top in the backyard.

Just as officials did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, someone was out early Monday making it clear which homes were no longer habitable — bright orange check marks were spray-painted on the front of many homes. Another house had the words "Gas Leak" painted on it.


Rod Pace, Med Flight manager at St. John's Regional Medical Center, watched the tornado form to the southwest like so many before.

He was on the second floor of St John's on Sunday evening to finish payroll before an expected frantic Monday. He'd wrapped up his work, but decided to stay an extra 15 to 20 minutes to let the weather pass.

Pace saw the swirling rain start to form about a mile off. The flags outside suddenly stopped blowing to the northeast, only to be pulled back to the west.

That was about the time the glass doors he was holding onto — the ones with the 100-pound magnet to keep them locked — were pulled open with Pace still holding on to the handles. He was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll, all the while holding on to the handles.

He headed to the hospital's interior for cover. Then he heard the roar. Pace and a co-worker pushed on a door to make sure it stayed shut, but it kept swaying back and forth.

"I've heard people talk about being in tornadoes and saying it felt like the building was breathing," Pace said. "It was just like that."

Outside, an explosion. Glass shards pelted the exterior. Pace heard screams.

He helped pull debris off two people outside the emergency room.

"There was a lot of strength in the leadership in the hospital and ER here," Pace said. "Things were going as they were supposed to go."


Kelley Fritz, 45, of Joplin, rummaged through the remains of a storage building in an industrial area of Joplin on Monday with her husband, Jimmy. But they quickly realized they'd never find the things they had stored there.

They also lost many of the belongings in their home after the twister ripped away their roof. Their sons, ages 20 and 17, both Eagle Scouts, went out in the neighborhood and quickly realized every home was destroyed.

"My sons had deceased children in their arms when they came back. My husband and I went out and saw 2 or 3 dead bodies on the ground," she said.

Fritz said she was surprised she had survived. "You could just feel the air pull up and it was so painful. I didn't think we were going to make it, it happened so fast."


Matthew Parks, 23, works at a homeless shelter, where he said he and his pregnant wife may become residents — at least for the time being.

They weren't home when the tornado hit but returned Monday morning to find the ceiling in the kitchen caved in, water soaking the floor and carpet and furniture was tossed about. The only room spared was the nursery prepared for their first child — it had virtually no damage. While Parks collected baby clothes and other items from the nursery, his parents, Eileen Parks, 49, and Brian Parks, 50, swept up broken glass and mopped water from the wood floor.

Eileen Parks had struggled to reach her son and daughter-in-law Sunday night and said she was just happy they were OK.

"The phones were out and I thought, `Oh Matthew, please call me,'" she said.


Among the homes destroyed was that of Chuck Surface, who served 18 years in the Missouri House before being forced out by term limits in 2002. Surface said he and his wife, their daughter, 9-year-old granddaughter and dog all ran to the basement of their brick home when the sky began changing quickly. They hid behind old mattresses as the tornado blew out their basement windows. No one was injured.

"When it got to where we thought we could look out, we went to the top of the stairs and there was no roof — it was all open air," said Surface, 67.


Joplin High School held its graduation at Missouri Southern State University on Sunday afternoon. Principal Kerry Sachetta said he was among about 75 to 100 stragglers who took cover from the storm in a university basement. As he departed, he began receiving text messages that his high school had been destroyed.

He headed there and found the top part of the auditorium gone, the band and music rooms caved in, windows blown out and his office missing its roof. Fifty-year-old trees outside the school had been stripped of their limbs.

Two churches across the street were "completely gone," and Sachetta was stunned by the condition of the nearby Franklin Technology Center.

"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," he said. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."


With the tornado bearing down on their trailer, Joshua Wohlford, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers sought shelter at a Walmart. They escaped serious injury when a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a tent over them as they huddled on the ground.

"It was 15 minutes of hell," Wohlford said. "We were buried."

The family was taken to a hospital, where a fleet of yellow school buses brought in people with minor injuries. Wohlford, 27, volunteered, helping the passengers unload.

Monday morning, one of those buses took his family to a shelter downtown. Their car totaled in the Walmart parking lot, they weren't sure how they would get home — or what would await them there.


Verna Gamboa, 65, said she and her husband took refuge in a closet when they heard the warning siren. On Monday, she stood near a massive, uprooted elm tree in her yard and cried as she surveyed what was left of her red brick home. A friend called her cell phone.

"It's a mess," she said into the phone. "But thanks. I love you, too."

Gamboa tried to focus on the positive.

"We're OK, that's what matters most," she said. "The house is still standing. A lot of people have it worse."


Associated Press writers David Lieb, Jim Salter, Kurt Voigt and Alan Scher Zagier contributed to this report.

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