published Thursday, May 26th, 2011

A tour through the broken heart of Joplin

By ALLEN G. BREED

AP National Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Standing amid the ruins of what had been a Goodyear service center, Robert Alves turns in place to take a grim inventory.

That twisted pile next door, he says, was a Jiffy Lube. The shell out back there, a sporting goods store. Over there was a Pizza Hut. And that massive heap across 20th Street used to be the Home Depot.

“Lots of used-to-be’s around here,” the 36-year-old mechanic says. “ALL used-to-be’s.”

Even harder to identify is what will be.

The tornado that tore through Joplin on Sunday essentially bifurcated this city of 50,000, carving a west-to-east path up to a mile wide that almost beggars description.

“Think about a lawnmower, taking the biggest lawnmower, and just mowing everything down,” says Heather Marsh, whose house was in the shadow of the shattered St. John’s Regional Medical Center. “It truly makes you feel how insignificant (life) really is. You feel so small and helpless.”

Before Sunday, the former mining boomtown was perhaps best known — if known at all to many Americans — as a sometime home base for outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and as a stop along Historic Route 66. Now, it is the site of the nation’s eighth-deadliest tornado.

At least 122 are dead, and possibly hundreds remain unaccounted for. Around 750 were injured.

On Wednesday, arduous rescue and recovery work went on, with crews repeating grid searches that started immediately after the storm. Officials restated their hope of finding more survivors, while leaders of St. John’s sent in structural engineers to see if the hospital could be saved.

“It truly was like a bomb went off almost on every floor,” said Gary Pulsipher, the hospital’s chief executive.

Joplin’s heart was certainly broken by the storm. But what about its spirit? To gauge that, listen to people along the tornado’s pitiless path.

———

Optometrists Justin and Rebecca Stilley had just taken their daughters — Ella and Eva, 3 and 5 — for ice cream and were on their way back to their split-level home in the Cedar Ridge neighborhood on the west end of town. When news of the approaching storms came over the radio, the 36-year-old father did something he’d never done before — he ran a red light.

Sirens were wailing across town when the family reached home. As the girls prepared to go into their “hiding place” — a crawl space with three concrete walls at the back of the garage — Justin Stilley stepped out on the back deck and saw “a big, wide mass” of black, swirling with debris.

Huddled with her children on a plaid blanket beside a drain pipe as the house bucked and rocked above them, Rebecca Stilley recited the Lord’s Prayer, over and over.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name ...”

When the storm had passed, the Stilleys emerged to find their roof gone, their daughters’ bedrooms open to the sky. Justin Stilley’s eyes well with tears as he contemplates what would have happened had the twister struck in the middle of the night.

“They wouldn’t have made it,” he chokes.

———

The storm tore random chunks out of Cedar Ridge and nearby Sunset Ridge. There, houses are still identifiable as houses. Neighborhoods still look like neighborhoods. Trees still had their foliage and bark.

But as it headed east, the twister apparently developed a focus and, jogging slightly north, grew into a monster roughly a mile wide.

Across 26th Street from St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Heather Marsh was taking a nap while her 8-year-old son, Hayden, played video games on his Wii. When she heard the sirens, the 31-year-old single mother didn’t think much of it; they went off all the time, and nothing ever came of it.

When they stopped suddenly, she figured it was a false alarm. Then her phone rang.

“Get in the tub!” her mother, Vivian Fannin, was shouting. “Get in the tub!”

Lightning flashed. Then the sirens began sounding again, louder than she’d ever heard them before.

She gave Hayden a handheld video game, tossed some pillows and blankets into the bathtub and told him to climb in. She grabbed their 3-year-old boxer-pug mix, Poppie, and climbed in after him. But as much as she pleaded, the family’s black-and-white cat, Charizard, simply stared at them from bathroom door. (The cat has not been found.)

Suddenly, the little “crackerbox” house she was buying from her parents collapsed around them.

With Hayden between her legs and a board wedged against her neck, Marsh began texting everyone in her cell phone’s address book.

“We’re trapped,” she punched. “Help us.”

When they heard the sounds of people outside, Marsh and Hayden began screaming. Guided by the light from her phone, men dug mother, son and dog from the wreckage.

“And this sweet breath of air came to us,” Marsh remembers. “And I just breathed in as deep as I could.”

She emerged into what had been her living room and surveyed the ravaged landscape. The only identifiable landmark for miles was the blown-out, windowless hulk of St. John’s.

———

Continuing east and slightly north, the storm raked Main Street and began marching up 20th Street — one of the city’s key east-west corridors. Here, the cross streets are named after states, and the damage got progressively worse as the storm passed over Iowa, Indiana, Florida and Mississippi — states that know the destructive powers of nature all too well.

That Sunday, Joplin High School held graduation ceremonies on the campus of Missouri Southern State University. Misty Westfall was driving graduate Amanda, 18, and her brother David, 19, home in her red pickup truck while husband David followed in another vehicle.

When they reached a roundabout, David Westfall continued straight on down to 32nd Street, but his wife decided to take one of her shortcuts.

She took 20th.

Before long, the sky turned inky black and the rain was coming down in sheets. Misty Westfall pulled into the parking lot at St. James Methodist Church, near the corner of Florida.

Suddenly, the truck was being lifted off the ground and rocked violently from side to side. During a brief calm, like the calm in the eye of a hurricane, they heard someone from a nearby house screaming at them to come inside, and they ran for it.

The family took shelter in an interior closet, the only part of the house that would survive.

When the storm had passed, the children went out to help dig survivors from the rubble. Misty Westfall found an old man in an SUV; there was a board protruding from his neck, but she checked for a pulse anyway. There was none.

When David Westfall reached home and his family wasn’t there, he picked his way back east along 20th, cutting through backyards. When he found his wife, they locked in a long embrace — and then he lectured her about taking shortcuts.

———

The Lansaw family was not so fortunate.

Zach Lansaw’s home is on 33rd Street, just outside the destruction zone. But his big brother Don lived on Mississippi, right in its path.

After the storm passed, he drove as far as he could, then parked and ran the last half mile or so to Don’s little frame house — the center for barbecues and game nights, where everyone gathered to pack for fishing trips. It looked like a box with the sides peeled down.

He found Don on the floor of the back bedroom. He was lying on his back, a green pillow beneath him. He could have been sleeping.

Zach knelt and shook him.

“Please, please, PLEASE. Breathe,” he shouted, administering CPR unsuccessfully.

Bethany, Don’s wife, told the family that Don had put her in the bathtub and stretched atop her, saving her life.

Don was 31; he owned a machine shop. His mother, Beth Lansaw, visited the wrecked house to try to salvage some mementos. She found a wedding photo, some quilts her mother had sewn for the boys, and a battered VHS tape of Don’s high school graduation.

Mrs. Lansaw had brought her two boys up in the Pentecostal church. Don had strayed some, had his troubles with drinking. But about three months ago, he’d told her that he’d found a new church home over in Carthage, that he and Bethany had answered an altar call, had been prayed over and experienced the laying on of hands.

She is sure he is in heaven. But that doesn’t lessen the pain.

“I just don’t understand why,” she says, sobbing on a log in the soggy grass out back. “Why him? And I won’t know that until I’m there with him — there with our maker, to ask him why. I’m not blaming God. No. Don wouldn’t want me to. I know he wouldn’t.”

———

The storm continued its march up 20th, crossing Range Line — the major north-south road that eventually becomes part of Route 66 — and flattening the Home Depot. Search and rescue teams have spent days poking holes in collapsed concrete slab walls to allow the dogs to sniff out the living and, as the days wore on, the dead.

Just up the road, a couple hundred yards from the city limits, Alan Gouge stands beside what is left of the Pepsi warehouse that had been his “second home” for the last 33 years. The 47,000-square-foot metal building that shipped more than 3 million cases of soda last year had been reduced to a 20-foot pile.

Standing atop the foundation, the 51-year-old warehouse manager was astonished to be able to look west and see the hulk of St. John’s, about six miles distant.

“You never could do that before,” he says. “All the trees are gone. All the buildings are gone. And you just look back west, and it’s total destruction. It’s hard to imagine.”

It is both a blessing and a cruel irony of such storms that when they cut a path through a city, they often leave large sections on either side unscathed. Brent Blizzard, whose grandmother died and whose parents’ home was destroyed, finds it both troubling and comforting that he can go just a few blocks from the Goodyear station where he worked and get a burger or a latte.

“That’s what makes it so surreal,” he says during a break from pulling waterlogged radials from the twisted heap. “It’s hard to wrap your head around.”

Buildings are missing. And so are people.

Sitting on a flatbed outside the shell of Joplin High, new alumna Sarah Sticklen cannot begin mourning for her alma mater until she learns what happened to one of her best friends.

Will Norton, a kind of local celebrity who parlayed his YouTube stardom into a paying gig and an offer of admission from Chapman University, was ejected or sucked from his father’s car on the way home from graduation. Authorities have searched for him in hospitals in three states and are not yet sure of his fate.

“I haven’t been able to really fathom it yet and weigh it all in,” the 17-year-old says.

Looking around, it is hard to imagine how the mountain of wreckage can ever be cleared away, let alone rebuilt. But Vince Martinez is confident that it will be.

Martinez, 68, is no stranger to devastation. He served with the 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang during the Vietnam War.

Martinez’s Marine Corps Active Wear on 20th is a total loss, what’s left of his stock drying in the parking lot. But the former staff sergeant says Joplin residents should take heart from the words on his shirt. Semper Fi: Always Faithful.

“They’ll survive, just like any other city in this country,” he says. “This is the United States. You can take THAT one to the bank.”

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