The Joplin Tornado: Tales of Death and Survival
I don’t know how long I’d been standing there. It was early morning, day two of covering the monster that struck Joplin. I just stepped out of our satellite truck, staring at all the destruction around me. Where do I begin?
Candy and Waggles
It didn’t take long before the first story of the day found me. A few feet away a woman carrying a dog was wandering around in a daze. She had good reason to. Turns out, each had quite a story. Both were tornado survivors.
Sunday evening, Candy Cartwright was visiting a patient on the fifth floor of St. Johns Medical Center, the hospital at the epicenter of the disaster. “When it come through it was blowing people out of the chairs,” Candy told me. “Everyone was screaming, beds were flying everywhere.”
Candy made it out alive, but many others didn’t. She softly stroked the chihuahua in her arms, and whispered in her ear, “It’s a wonder you made it.” If only Waggles could talk. Instead she licked Candy’s face. As Candy was riding out the storm upstairs, Waggles was trapped in a van outside. Candy feared the worst as she made her way to the damaged vehicle. “The front end was smashed in,” she said. “The whole side is smashed in.”
Candy was afraid Waggles was dead. But there she was, at the window, soaking wet, but alive. Candy smothered her friend with kisses. “She said I’m glad momma come got me.” Waggles can’t talk, but Candy has no trouble understanding her.
The search for Zachary
As soon Candy and Waggles shared their story of survival, I got word from the head of
Oklahoma Task Force 1 that his crew was looking for a missing 12-year-old boy. Search and recovery, not search and rescue. The difference between finding a survivor and finding a body.
The search was going on in a neighborhood a few miles away. Under normal conditions, a five-minute drive. But with many of the streets blocked by fallen trees, downed power lines or mangled cars, and police stopping vehicles from traveling other roads, five minutes turned into 50.
When we got there, I was quickly briefed by OK Task Force team leader Nick Swainston. “There were four in the house Sunday evening,” he told me. “Three of the people made it out alive, but one is still missing.” The missing was a 12-year-old boy named Zachary.
Swainston’s team was combing through the rubble of what used to be a home. Before Sunday, thousands of homes in this part of Joplin all looked different. Now they all looked the same.
After an hour of searching what they call ground zero, no sign of Zachary. More searchers are turning over debris across the street, where the force of the tornado may have carried the boy. Again, no Zachary. “So this boy could be just about anywhere,” I said. It was more of a statement than a question. Swainston nodded, “Yes, anywhere.” “How long will you keep searching?” “As long as it takes,” he replied.
That afternoon someone came forward to say the body of a boy matching Zachary’s description was found across the street Sunday night, and taken to a make-shift morgue.
Zachary was found.
No, you don’t have to look very far or very long to find a story. Just walk down a street. There was a man sitting cross-legged in the middle of the street, with his two dogs near his side. He’s just staring at his damaged home. His dogs are just tired, barely lifting their heads as I walk by.
I found Chuck Kohl leaning against his truck, next to his bombed-out looking home. He told me he had his eye on the house as a rental property for years. Kohl finally pulled the trigger and bought it… just three weeks ago. “I gave the owners a ridiculous offer,” he said. “And they took it. Maybe they’ll reconsider.” At least he could laugh about it.
It’s impossible to tell what most of the rubble used to be. For nearly two days, I was doing “live” shots near a movie theater, and had no idea. A movie was showing that evening. Two people died.
The fury of mother nature
Not more than 30 feet away from the theater is a huge tree, stripped of bark and most of its branches. Wrapped around this tree is a semi-truck. A semi-truck! Where it came from is anyone’s guess. But I think, above anything else I’ve seen, it represents the power of the EF-5 twister that turned out to be the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. in at least 60 years.