|Joplin's Spirit Tree, May 22, 2012|
I stepped out of the movie theater on May 22nd, and looked to the west. The sky above me was clear and thin, but to the west, a wall of bruised clouds stood. I walked to the car, a little disappointed; the movie hadn't been to my liking. And those clouds looked more northerly than I wished they would be -- we needed rain, and a storm would boost my spirits.
I drove home, stopping first for milk at my favorite tiny grocery. At the register, I listened. You guys should hurry home, the radio said a big storm's headed this way. It's looking pretty freaky out there. Outside again, I searched the sky. The light had changed colors -- instead of warm, early evening sun, there was a sickly, greenish film. But the clouds still seemed too far north. Wind tugged at my hair. Maybe so, I thought. Maybe we'll get a storm after all.
Later, I heated leftovers in the microwave and sat the kids down at the table. We picked at our food. I encouraged bites while the wind gushed through open windows. The sirens went off. We glanced again at the sky, interested. There was nothing. No rain, no thunder, no storm.
Then, the lights went dark, and the hail began to fall.
"We were watching the news. The radar kept flashing in the bottom corner, and the newscasters were calm, giving instructions, warning about the possibility for tornadoes. Then, they cut to the video camera from the tower. On the screen, everyone saw the funnel cloud. It was huge and black and right there. The anchor -- that girl, you remember? The pretty, young one? -- she started yelling into the camera Seek cover IMMEDIATELY. There is a LARGE tornado on the west side of Joplin, TAKE COVER. Her voice was shaking. She was panicking, and so were we. The station's signal cut out then, and we ran downstairs to the shelter. My little boy was throwing up and crying; he saw the tornado before the screen went blank."
My mom had called my cell phone while we hid in the closet, but the signal wouldn't last long enough to make contact. I worried. It had been windy and loud here, with hail pounding the roof and leaves falling from trees. Rain still fell, but it now was lazy.
"Justin, let's drive over there and make sure mom and dad are okay." We put shoes on the girls, grabbed our phones, and walked to the garage. That's when I heard the sirens. Ambulances, police cruisers, fire trucks -- the city to our north seemed alive with sirens. "Wow. Do you think there was a big accident because of the storm? The sirens are..."
Headlights cut down our street and I looked out into the rain. It was my dad's truck. He jumped out. "You guys okay?"
"Yeah!" I was happy. That had been a good storm, and I do so love a good storm. "But listen to all those sirens -- what happened up there?"
My dad was incredulous. Angry, even. "What do you mean, what happened? Joplin just got hit by a huge tornado. The city is ruined."
My face fell. I stood on the driveway, pelted by rain, disbelieving. A tornado? But it had seemed so...normal. At my house, it had been so very normal.
"My wife and kids jumped into the bathtub. I grabbed the baby's crib mattress and threw it over them, then leaned across it to hold onto the other side. It seemed just like a bad storm for a few minutes, then it changed. I heard debris slamming into the walls. I felt wind, even though we were inside, and I looked out from under my arm. I watched the roof being torn away. The walls shook, then ripped. Shit was flying everywhere, hitting my back and arms and legs. I prayed the whole time -- and it seemed like it lasted forever -- God please, don't let it take my family.
"No, I wasn't trying to be a hero. It never crossed my mind. It wasn't even a decision. I just laid over them. On top of them. One more thing between them and the storm."
"Earlier that afternoon, my son had fallen out on the street. He had a big scrape on his elbow, so we found the first aid kit. Used antiseptic and gauze and tape. We left a stack of gauze squares on the end table in the living room. When the sirens went off, we took cover, and it was a good thing. The whole house had fallen down around us like matchsticks. Everything was completely trashed. But when we walked into what had been the living room, there was the end table. And there was the pile of gauze. Perfectly stacked, untouched by wind or debris. Like it found the only pocket of windless space in the whole city."
...his son was sucked right out of the car window. He tried to hold on, but the pressure was just too strong...can you imagine?
"I stopped counting how many people we pulled out of the rubble. I only counted the survivors, because to think about...I couldn't. Seeing those faces, people with families, loved ones...I just couldn't.
The whole house was flattened. Leveled. Except for the hall closet, where we'd been hiding. That one place was still standing. Just a few minutes before, I'd been at the kitchen sink. Now there IS no kitchen sink.
We crowded under the staircase when the tornado hit. And when we came out, the staircase was all that was left of our home. It was a miracle.
We decided to head outside to get to the crawlspace, but when we opened the back door, the wind blew it off the hinges. Stuff was already flying, so we ran back into the bedroom and tried to get under the bed. But by then, the tornado was already on top of us. We crammed ourselves beside the bed, holding on to each other because if we tried to move, we felt like we'd fly away. I saw the roof lift up. Saw daylight. Closed my eyes again. And waited for it to be over. One way or the other, it was about to be over, either for me, or for the storm.
There was nothing left our our house, the home I grew up in. The only place left alone, the only place not torn apart -- was the bathroom where we'd hidden. That's proof of miracles, if you ask me. And people are telling the same story all over town.
I picked my way over building materials and cables stepping gingerly. Justin had told me to be careful -- I was pregnant and ungraceful. Jill walked in front of me, talking as she stepped. "I'm sure he wasn't even home, because he goes out to dinner every Sunday night. It would be so unlikely if he hadn't gone out last night. Surely he was out..."
The church and parish house were in piles before us, but the one thing still standing tall, was the cross. The huge, iron cross of St. Mary's. We came to see if anyone in the area knew about Father, if he'd been home, or if he'd been seen since last night. He wasn't answering his cell phone, but service was terrible.
Jill stopped near the top of the hill. She turned around and held a hand over her mouth, letting worried tears break free. "His car..." she whispered and shook her head. "It's still here. He was still here." Behind her, Father's black car was smashed on all sides, ruined. The parish house was indistinguishable; bricks and roofing and insulation all heaped into a mass. "I can't lose that man, I need him to be okay..." She wiped her face and took a breath. There were men standing on top of the rubble, and she yelled up to them.
They said Father was safe. He'd been rescued from his bathtub after sending a text message to a nearby parishioner.
I stood at the top of the hill and looked across the city. I could see so much of it now. From the hospital to the high school to the neighborhoods, it was all clear and ruined. Leveled. Washed away on a tide of wind. Bombed without flames.
That was the first time I cried.