JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - Rescue crews dug through piles of splintered
houses and crushed cars Monday in a search for victims of a
half-mile-wide tornado that killed at least 116 people when it
blasted much of this Missouri town off the map and slammed straight
into its hospital.
It was the nation's deadliest single tornado in nearly 60 years
and the second major tornado disaster in less than a month.
Authorities feared the toll could rise as the full scope of the
destruction comes into view: House after house reduced to slabs,
cars crushed like soda cans, shaken residents roaming streets in
search of missing family members. And the danger was by no means
over. Fires from gas leaks burned across town, and more violent
weather loomed, including the threat of hail, high winds and even
At daybreak, the city's south side emerged from darkness as a
barren, smoky wasteland.
"I've never seen such devastation - just block upon block upon
block of homes just completely gone," said former state legislator
Gary Burton who showed up to help at a volunteer center at Missouri
Southern State University.
It was the nation's deadliest single twister since a June 1953
tornado in Flint, Mich. Unlike the multiple storms that killed more
than 300 people last month across the South, Joplin was smashed by
just one exceptionally powerful twister.
Authorities were prepared to find more bodies in the rubble
throughout this gritty, blue-collar town of 50,000 people about 160
miles south of Kansas City. An unknown number of people were hurt.
Despite the grim outlook, Gov. Jay Nixon said he was
"optimistic that there are still lives out there to be saved."
While many residents had 10 to 17 minutes of warning, rain and
hail may have drowned out the sirens.
Larry Bruffy said he heard the first warning but looked out from
his garage and saw nothing. "Five minutes later, the second
warning went off," he said. "By the time we tried to get under
the house, it already went over us."
As rescuers toiled in the debris, a strong thunderstorm lashed
the crippled city. Rescue crews had to move gingerly around downed
power lines and jagged chunks of debris as they hunted for victims
and hoped for survivors. Fires, gas fumes and unstable buildings
posed constant threats.
Teams of searchers fanned out in waves across several square
miles. The groups went door to door, making quick checks of
property that in many places had been stripped to their foundations
or had walls collapse.
National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes said the storm was
given a preliminary label as an EF4 - the second-highest rating
given to twisters. The rating is assigned to storms based on the
damage they cause.
Hayes said the storm had winds of 190 to 198 mph. At times, it
was three-quarters of a mile wide.
Some of the most startling damage was at St. John's Regional
Medical Center, where staff had only moments to hustle their
patients into the hallway. Five patients died there.
The storm blew out hundreds of windows and caused damage so
extensive that doctors had to abandon the hospital after the
twister passed. A crumpled helicopter lay on its side in the
parking lot near a single twisted mass of metal that used to be
Dr. Jim Roscoe, said some members of his emergency room staff
showed up after the tornado with injuries of their own, but they
worked through the night anyway.
"I spent most of my life at that hospital," Roscoe said at a
triage center at Joplin's Memorial Hall entertainment venue. "It's
awful. I had two pregnant nurses who dove under gurneys ... It's a
testimony to the human spirit."
As the tornado bore down on their trailer home, Joshua Wohlford,
his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers fled to a Walmart
store. The family narrowly escaped after a shelf of toys partially
collapsed, forming a makeshift tent that shielded them.
"It was 15 minutes of hell," Wohlford said.
At a Fast Trip convenience store, another 20 people ran into a
pitch-black cooler as the building began to collapse around them.
They documented their experience with a video that was drawing tens
of thousands of views online by Monday afternoon. The audio was
even more terrifying than the imagery - earsplitting wind, objects
getting smashing, wailing children and a woman praying repeatedly.
Brennan Stebbins said the group crouched on the floor, clinging
to and comforting each other until they were able to crawl out. No
one was seriously hurt.
Shielded by mattresses, former lawmaker Chuck Surface rode out
the storm in his basement with his wife, daughter, granddaughter
and dog. After about five minutes, the deafening roar abruptly
"When it got to where we thought we could look out," he said,
"we went to the top of the stairs and there was no roof - it was
all open air."
Dazed survivors tried to salvage clothes, furniture, family
photos and financial records from their flattened or badly damaged
Kelley Fritz rummaged briefly through what was left of a storage
building, then gave up. Her boys, both Eagle Scouts, rushed into
the neighborhood after realizing every home was destroyed.
When they returned, she said, "my sons had deceased children in
Others just waited for answers.
Justin Gibson stood outside the tangled remains of a Home Depot
and pointed to a black pickup that had been tossed into them. It
belonged to his roommate's brother, last seen at the store with his
two young daughters.
"I don't know the extent of this yet," Gibson said, "but I
know I'll have friends and family dead."
Last month, a ferocious pack of twisters roared across six
Southern states, killing more than 300 people, more than two-thirds
of them in Alabama.
As in the Midwest, the Southerners also had warning - as much as
24 minutes. But those storms were too wide and too powerful to
escape. They obliterated entire towns from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to
Bristol, Va., in what the weather service said was the nation's
deadliest tornado outbreak since April 1974.
"This was one tornado," said Greg Carbin, warning specialist
with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. "It was not the
same type of large-scale outbreak."
It did, however, get the attention of those who suffered in the
"We're praying for those people," said retired Marine Willie
Walker, whose Tuscaloosa home suffered more than $50,000 in damage.
"We know what they're going through because we've been there
Forecasters said severe weather would probably persist all week.
Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma could see tornadoes through
Tuesday, and the bad weather could reach the East Coast by Friday.
The twister that hit Joplin was one of 68 reported across seven
Midwest states over the weekend. One person was killed in
Minneapolis and another in Kansas, but Missouri took the hardest
Joplin, named for the founder of the area's first Methodist
congregation, is the hometown of poet Langston Hughes and
"Gunsmoke" actor Dennis Weaver. It flourished though World War II
because of its rich lead and zinc mines. It also gained fame as a
stop along Route 66, the storied highway stretching from Chicago to
Santa Monica, Calif., before freeways diminished its importance.
Triage centers and shelters around Joplin rapidly filled to
capacity. At a Lowe's home-improvement store, wooden planks served as cots.
Kerry Sachetta, principal of a flattened Joplin High School,
could barely recognize her own building.
"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that
with the bombing," she said. "That's really what it looked
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)