I had the unfortunate timing May, 22 to be in Joplin, visiting my girlfriend, when the tornado hit and because of the unusual situation we found ourselves I was asked to write a story about it. The article appeared in Monday’s Northwest Arkansas Newspapers but I thought I would post it here and share a panorama photo I shot last Saturday after volunteering to work clearing debris. If any one wants to volunteer, Group Volunteers should call the Volunteer Task Force at 314-623-9991 and Individuals can contact the City of Joplin 417-625-3543. Additional information about donations and or volunteer opportunities is available by dialing 221, or 1-800-427-4626. Click on the photo to enlarge the photo.
By Spencer Tirey
Joplin Mo—It’s a clear night on the horizon to the south. Past the
emergency vehicles’ floodlights I can see lightning dancing through
the clouds. A large backhoe gently sifts wood and stone from the
remains of the Greenbriar Nursing Center.
Firemen with flashlights sweep the rubble for signs of people.
I asked an emergency worker if he wants us to remove the bodies
already found. Yes, he says, if they can be.
This is my last moment of trepidation this night. I pause and think to
myself, can I do this? There are better people than me standing there.
The others did not shy away and started toward the bodies, including
my girlfriend, Cindy Smith.
She would later tell me she did it because she wanted to make sure the
dead were treated with respect.
I can tell you they were.
Cindy and I had finished dinner at a local restaurant around 5:30 p.m.
We saw the tornado warning on the restaurant’s television. Driving
down Range Line Road, we listen to a radio interview with the Jasper
County emergency management director and heard repeats of the warning. We
pass the Chick-fil-A, the Pizza Hut, the Home Depot, the Walmart. We
don’t know what is coming. We can’t contemplate what will happen to
the people we pass.
As we drive we see the wind bend the trees toward the storm instead of away: a sign of an
updraft and tornado. Cindy acknowledges my concern as we ease the car toward home.
We turn west our path takes us straight for what looks like a dark, gray curtain of
rain. As we turn in another direction, the clouds look as if they’re
boiling and rolling. It would be only minutes until we realize what we
saw and an hour before we discover how lucky we were to change
direction when we did.
The electricity is out at Cindy’s house. She gets a battery powered
radio, and, after a few minutes of static, we find a station still
A tornado has hit Joplin.
A reporter is asked where he is. He describes driving up Range Line.
“The Pizza Hut is gone, the Home Depot is gone,” the reporter says.
“The Chick-fil-A is heavily damaged. McAlister’s gone.”
We look at each other stunned. Surely he is exaggerating. We were just
there. This is crazy! But the reporter keeps calling roll and giving
the same answer: “gone.”
I had come up to Joplin from Fayetteville on Saturday evening to see
Cindy with the intention of going back Sunday to attend a friend’s
going-away party. I left my cameras in Fayetteville because I didn’t
think I’d need them.
Cindy would later tell me that she was a little surprised by my first
reaction, because, as she put it, “It wasn’t about me.”
I’ll take that criticism. I’ve covered more that my share of tornadoes
and their aftermath working for the Arkansas Gazette and The
Associated Press. My first reaction is to cover the story, to get the
photos. But this time I can’t.
I feel helpless. I have no reason to be out. I don’t want to be a
gawkier. I’ve see that guy too often just getting in the way at times
like this. The radio announcer asks people to stay in their homes so
emergency personnel can work.
“Gone” rolls in my head. Can it be that bad? I have no reason to go,
so I resign myself to the idea of staying.
Cindy, who runs a large company that provides home health care for the
disabled, speaks up.
“I need to see if the office is all right and to check in.” Her office
is on the other side of town.
Police have barricaded Main Streets. Down 32nd, where we had come from
earlier, we realize what we’d seen while driving home. At roughly
three-quarters of a mile wide and only a few hundred yards from our
car with rain falling to its south, the dark gray curtain that we
perceived as rain was really the southern side of what the National
Weather Service would describes as the deadliest single twister since
1950 and the eighth deadliest in U.S. history.
The funnel was so large and close to us that it took up a good part of our view.
The police wave us off Main Street and west on 32nd. I see north down Main.
“Oh my God. The neighborhood is gone.”
I look at a couple standing in front of a house, its windows gone, and
hear the woman comment, “Look at all the gawkers” as we drive by. I
feel 2 feet tall. The rain has stopped. People walk the street; some
wet and dirty; some dry and clean. Others mill around damaged houses.
A man stands in the doorway of one home, its windows gone. Blood spots
dot his face and shirt and appear to be running down his arm.
We drive farther into the neighborhood, trying to go north. The damage
worsens. At first it’s just fallen trees and damaged roofs. Then
missing windows and roofs. Then homes with no walls and no contents,
then rubble, then nothing at all in places where it looks like
something once stood.
The lack of landmarks disorients Cindy. She used to live in this
neighborhood, but she can’t tell where.
A car is wrapped like aluminum foil tightly around a telephone pole.
We turn on 26th Street. Cindy asks, “Where is the school?” We first
see the remains of a large electrical transformer station. Twisted
metal and cables lay everywhere. We look at a building with the words
“Irving Elementary School” above the door.
I can see Cindy needs a moment, so I ask her to park so I can take
some photos with my iPhone.
I’ve covered more than 20 tornadoes through the years. As a photo
editor, when I send someone to their first tornado scenes, I tell them
it will be overwhelming, and they won’t know where to begin. I advise
them to stand still, look around, take a deep breath and begin with
some overall photos of the scene to get their legs. Then I tell them
to focus on the people and their reaction to the tragedy so we can
show our readers the human element.
Focus on the people. The phrase will form a different meaning for me
in the next few hours, and I will learn a lot.
As I stand shooting the remains of the school’s playground, two nurses
come running down the street trying to get to the hospital.
We’re making room in the car when a man approaches and asks if I can
help free people trapped down the street. I tell Cindy to take the
couple to the hospital, and I’ll go see if I can help. Running to
help, I’m worried I won’t know what I can do. I’ve had first aid, CPR
and water rescue training, but I’m unsure of myself.
As I run, I asked several people standing near a building if this is
where the people are trapped.
“People are trapped?” they answer and follow me down the street. We
come to a parking lot and a woman hearing my question yells “here” and
points to piles of rubble behind her. She tells me it was a nursing
home, and residents are unaccounted for.
I make my way up a pile of wood. I’m wearing running shoes and wish I
had my boots and gloves. I try to avoid the nails, something I’ve
learned being around sites like this.
But that is where my experience ends. I’m overwhelmed. I run up the
pile yelling, “Anyone needing help?”
At the top, I see more piles and a few people in a parking lot on the
other side caring for several elderly people.
I go to the only wall standing. A man wet and shivering with no shoes
sits in the corner, electrical lines everywhere. He tells me the
electricity is on. In front of him is what looks like a collapsed
hallway. Through the rubble I can see a small woman standing. I’ve got
to get them out. There is wire everywhere. Is it live? I see a fuse
box near the man where all the wires are running. I also see they are
all insulated by metal tubes, so I crawl and switch off the breakers
and tell him the electricity looks to be off. He keeps saying it’s on.
I look through the rubble into the collapsed hallway, asking if they
are all right. I see three people with their backs against the
standing wall, the very small women standing, a large man in a
wheelchair and a woman in a wheelchair.
I hear a moan, follow it and realize I’m standing on a door that is
pressing on a man trapped under the adjacent wall. The door blocks my
ability to get to any of them and wire prevents me from moving it. I’m
only able to slide it away from the trapped man, so it’s not pressing
Questions and problems run through my head. How do I get them out? The
trapped man moans. The man in the corner keeps repeating the
electricity is on. I feel helpless.
Crawling back out I yell, “I need help. I have a man trapped and in pain.”
A couple who look like nurses appear, and I tell them to see if they
can get to the other side. A man comes running up the pile and says we
need to organize. I tell him he’s right. We need to get this guy out
and see about getting to the man who is trapped. We also need more
I’ve lost my focus.
Thinking the electricity is still on, the man doesn’t want to move. He
is uninjured and comfortable in the corner, so I leave him.
I try to move the door again, and I see the nurses have found another
opening. One nurse talks to the man trapped under the wall. I try to
move the door again and notice the man who came to help is gone. I
I crawl back out yelling, “Does any one have wire cutters, anything to
cut with?” I hear no response.
It was not until I was asked to write about my experience that I
realized what I did next. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know what
happened to them after I climbed out. I know they got out because I
watched later as the area was swept by search and rescue personnel,
and we would later remove two bodies farther down the wall from where
After crawling out of the rubble and seeing no one, I try to get to
the other side where the nurses went through. A woman tends to several
injured residents sitting on mattresses in a debris-covered parking
lot. I hear, “I need help,” and I see a man throwing a board off an
elderly woman lying in the rubble. We carry her to the mattresses in
the parking lot.
As I look up, two more men are trying to get a woman out of a
wheelchair. The chair’s head and shoulder supports have shielded her,
but the falling walls now rest on the shoulder support, pinning her in
the chair. I try to lift the walls, but they’re too heavy. Hearing
voices, one man looks down and discovers more people behind the woman.
“How many?” I ask, realizing the walls I’m trying to lift are on top
of them. He says three. We tell them we are going to get them out and
to hold on.
More volunteers arrive. I try to clear debris from on top of the
walls. A muscular man tries to move the walls, and I tell him we’ve
got to get the debris off first, that there are others under it.
We work out a plan to move enough of the debris to lift the wall and
get the woman out and leave the chair in case it’s holding up part of
the wall. Just moving the debris an inch or two means freeing or
crushing a survivor.
Dozens of volunteers now scramble around. Their names and faces I’ll
never know. We realize that we can’t move the massive pile of walls
off the trapped people without major equipment.
I finally find my focus. I look past the pile and see there is less
debris on the other side and suggest we look at getting to them from
The other side is single-tiled bathroom walls and some other wall
fragments. We dig. The volunteers create a human chain to pass debris.
Instead of pulling away the rubble, a man next to me kicks at a wall
to break it up, and I yell for him to stop. Never looking up at him, I
look at the spot and hear a voice cry out, “You’re hitting me.”
Everyone stops. We agree to work slowly so we don’t hurt anyone. A few
moments later, two men beside me find an opening. We can see them.
There is no easy way out of the mound of debris.
“How many do you have?” someone behind me asks.
“Three,” I yell, turning around for the first time. In surprise, I see
a large crowd of people behind me. I hold up three fingers. An
emergency responder in a black shirt, the first I’ve seen,
acknowledges my answer. Then I hear, “four” from the man at the hole
and relay the new number. Then “five.”
I realize it will be hard for me to get them through the debris. The
muscular man steps up, and I help guide him through the rubble as he
carries a survivor. I then carry another woman a few feet and hand her
to others on better footing.
The atmosphere relaxes after the five are freed. People start moving
down to the parking lot. As the last man is stepping out of the hole,
I asked him to look in the direction of where we had lifted the walls
off the woman in the wheelchair earlier.
“There’s another one,” he says. I yell to regroup the volunteers. This
time we move a hot water heater that couldn’t be drained, and people
using wire cutters clear the lines. Someone has a chain saw that we
use to cut away a door so we can reach the woman and free her legs.
After helping to carry her out, I realize I’m exhausted and wonder
where Cindy is. I try to call her, but there is no reception and my
battery is dying.
A field triage had been set up. The parking lot is full of victims
laying on a line of mattresses and chairs. Two young girls run
screaming up to each other across the parking lot and hug, crying. A
women gives orders to take this person next as people load the injured
onto a utility truck. It speeds away as a pickup arrives and backs in.
I start walking back to where I had come in off 26th Street and find
people who thing they’ve heard someone while searching a pile. An
alarm is sounding, which I find and throw into the street. Someone
crushes it with a rock so we can listen. We call out to see if anyone
is there and dig until it looks like there is no where else to look.
I go back atop the pile I had first come over and see uniformed
firemen for the first time. They are digging. There’s a body a few
feet away still half buried.
“She’s right there,” a familiar voice says. I look up to see Cindy
directing the firemen. She drove the nurses as close to the hospital
as she could and then returned about 10 minutes later. After not
finding me, she worked with another woman helping to search for and
The firemen freed the woman just before the sun went down, but not
until I noticed another body next to her. I pointed out to the fireman
this must have been a hallway similar to the one on the other side
where we had found the others. There are probably more people here, I
I find a woman who worked at the nursing home, and she explains the
layout of the building, which helps us find two more bodies in that
area. Cindy and I would, by the time we leave, help remove six.
I would later find out that of the 89 residents in the home, 11 had
died, including one worker.
I have over the years put my cameras down to help people until
emergency workers arrived. Saturday, while helping to clean debris,
Cindy and I made a side trip back to the site of the nursing home and
I realized that if I had had my cameras that day, they would have just
been in the way. I was a participant and not an observer.
As Cindy reminded me earlier, “It wasn’t about me.”
By end of the day May 22, I had learned a lot about myself and what I
could do if needed. With humility, I gained a greater respect for
those who do the work everyday. I would also see a strength in Cindy
that I greatly admire.