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VIDEO: Joplin Tornado 'Like a Nuclear Bomb'

VIDEO: Joplin Tornado 'Like a Nuclear Bomb'

Meghan Miller stands in the middle of a destroyed neighborhood as she checks on her sister-in-law's home Monday, May 23, 2011, in Joplin , Mo. A large tornado moved through much of the city Sunday, damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses.

USA TODAY

May 24, 2011

George Ballew spent Monday in an emergency shelter, nursing his wounds and worrying about his missing wife.

He was clutching a tube of toothpaste, the fingers on one hand cut, broken and wrapped in gauze, when an emergency volunteer approached. “George, your wife is OK,” she told him gently. “We just found her.”

“Oh, thank God,” he said, collapsing into the volunteer’s arms. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Ballew, 48, and his wife, Deborah, 53, lived in a first-floor apartment across the street from St. John’s Regional Medical Center. This city’s big regional hospital was busy Sunday afternoon when it took a direct hit by the killer tornado that struck with only a few minutes’ warning. At least 116 people were killed in one of the deadliest such storms in the nation’s history, including six at the hospital.

Deborah Ballew was at work as a third-floor nurse there when the hospital was battered by the half-mile-wide tornado that carved a path through Joplin. Her husband was at home and ducked into a closet when he heard the storm approach.

He emerged to devastation. The small, two-story apartment complex was leveled.

“It went dark, and then it felt like something sucked all the air out,” Ballew recalled. “And there was this tremendous sound, the loudest I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard tank fire, but this was loud. … I guess it was the building exploding. You think, ‘This is it.’”

Moments after the storm, he rushed toward the hospital. “I glanced back at the apartment, and it was completely gone. I don’t think there was a car that wasn’t turned over and smashed,” he said.

Barely 20 minutes after the twister was seen approaching from the west, St. John’s was in the midst of a disaster zone and debris field, its usual orderliness shattered like the trees outside that had their bark torn off.

The twister touched down in a densely populated section of the central city and left a path of destruction 4 miles long. The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency estimated that 10% to 30% of this southwestern Missouri city of about 50,000 people was damaged or destroyed, roughly 2,000 structures.

“Complete chaos” is how lab technician Chris Moreno described the scene.

The hospital was among the hardest-hit parts of a devastated city. Staff members hustled patients into hallways to try to protect them from the violent winds and flying glass. Nine stories tall, the building was rendered virtually useless.

Within 30 minutes, Moreno and Steve Vanderbol, 45, who runs a communications company, had set up an outdoor triage site. Moreno said he saw several body bags containing the remains of people who had been in the hospital.

Storms hinder rescuers

By Monday afternoon, bodies still were being found across Joplin. A makeshift trauma center outside the hospital remained busy. Vanderbol was helping to direct police tactical units to areas where there were reports of survivors.

“We’ve got confirmed fatalities. We need to get them out,” Vanderbol said as rain drenched the scene. Stormy weather continued Monday, punctuating rescue efforts with violent claps of thunder as more storms moved over the sodden debris.

“I just ask that everyone … continue to pray for folks,” Gov. Jay Nixon said after touring the area. He grimly predicted more death and destruction may be uncovered.

Even so, he added, “We remain positive and optimistic that there are still lives out there to be saved. We will rebuild this city.”

City Manager Mark Rohr said the death toll had reached 116, and that at least 17 people had been rescued alive from the wreckage of homes and buildings. More than 500 people were reported injured.

Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., who is from nearby Springfield, toured Joplin and accompanied emergency workers on a search-and-rescue mission.

“The pictures on TV don’t do it justice,” he said. “It looks like a nuclear bomb has hit.”

‘Many, many deaths’

Even by the standards of this spring’s massive tornado destruction across the South and Midwest, the Joplin tornado was enormous. It was the deadliest tornado in the USA since 1947, when 181 people were killed in Woodward, Okla. With the death toll at 116, it is the ninth-deadliest single tornado in U.S. history.

Joplin will need time to recover. Telephone service, including cellular, was out for much of the city, and power was out across a wide area. The winds left power lines down, mounds of debris and blocked roads.

The violence tore at the fabric of this city close to the Kansas and Oklahoma borders. Four churches, a nursing home, a high school, four elementary schools, a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot were destroyed.

Thousands of rescue workers have come here from across Missouri.

Rescuers pulled five families from the rubble of their homes early Monday. More than 1,000 firefighters and other rescue workers continued to search “every square foot of Joplin,” house-by-house, looking for more survivors, Nixon he said.

Nixon activated the state’s National Guard troops, who were working to get injured people out of the tornado zone and into hospitals, but severe weather, including thunderstorms, was hampering their efforts.

“It’s incredible destruction. It just ground into the town,” Nixon said. “This has been a terrible tragedy with many, many deaths, many, many injuries.”

Mary Lee, 71, a retiree from St. Louis, was visiting a cousin in Joplin. They raced to the basement just in time to hear roaring and the crackle of splintering wood. When they emerged, the roof was gone. They suffered cuts and bruises but no serious injuries.

“I thought it was the End of Days or at least my last day on this earth,” Lee said. She and her cousin had held hands and sung hymns as the storm rumbled overhead. Now, staying with friends, they feel blessed.

“What I saw when I stepped outside I’ll never forget,” Lee said. “Everything was gone. I’ve seen plenty of tornadoes in my day, but this was the meanest, ugliest storm ever.”

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

© 2009, YellowBrix, Inc.


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