Tornado survivors remember tragic day
KANSAS CITY, MO. >> A sky-darkening storm was working its way into southwest Missouri around dinnertime on a Sunday evening, zeroing in on the city of Joplin.
Will Norton was among 400 graduates of Joplin High School emerging from their commencement ceremony. Liz Easton was watering plants in her yard, while Mark Lindquist was tending to residents of the group home where he worked. About 10 miles away, the county coroner, Rob Chappel, was at home.
Forecasters knew the storm's potential was fierce and gave early warnings. Then, as storm sirens blared, one of the nation's deadliest tornados hit — leveling a miles-long swath of Joplin on May 22, 2011. The storm was eventually blamed for 161 deaths.
Here are stories about some of the victims and survivors, and the city's recovery:
As his father desperately held his legs, 18-year-old Will Norton was sucked out of his family's SUV through the sunroof as they drove home from his graduation. Norton's body was found five days later in a pond.
Five years later, his father says it's almost as if his son never left. Will's room remains the way he left it, with an open pack of chewing gum, his trademark mismatched socks, his computer and the green screen that helped earn him a YouTube following for his travel chronicles.
"It's a little comfort to go in there, go back in time and remember how it was," Norton said. "I go to the cemetery once or twice a week, but it's not the same as being in his room."
Joplin now has "Will Norton Miracle Field," a baseball park for children with special needs. Freeman Hospital and its Ozark Center counseling arm has "Will's Place," a treatment site for children with mental health or behavioral issues.
And there's now a website, "The Will Wall," where people can post their gratitude for others who had an impact on them.
"Time passes, and you just look for the good in things," Mark Norton says. "These are good things."
The tornado threw Mark Lindquist more than half a block, burying him a pile of rubble. He was impaled on a piece of metal, broke every rib in his body and lost most of his teeth. He spent nearly two months in a coma.
Lindquist and a co-worker at the group home known as Community Group Services scrambled as the twister bore down to place mattresses atop three middle-aged men with Down syndrome. Then they climbed atop the makeshift protective cover for added weight.
"I do remember the house kind of exploding, and me being jerked in the air," the 56-year-old said. "But that's it."
The residents he tried to save didn't make it.
Lindquist was publicly honored by the Missouri Legislature, though privately, he struggles.
Physically, "I'm a mess, but I'm still here," he said. He no longer needs a cane but has a perpetual limp. He can fish, but can't play his beloved golf. He mows the lawn but does little else requiring exertion. He plays catch with his 16-year-old son with his left hand, "but it's not pretty."
He has suffered from depression, but said he presses on knowing it could have been so much worse.
"When I start to feel sorry for myself, I think of that," he said. "I'm a spiritual person, and I feel like I get a pat on the back from God every once in a while."
The tornado left Liz Easton's home and cupcake shop in ruins, but it spared her family.
Easton, 47, said she can't forget the sinister look of the storm as it descended on her neighborhood. It turned so ominous that she hustled her family to the basement before the twister hit, tearing through their home as they cried out.
"We could see the stuff just flying around," then suddenly everything was quiet and almost peaceful, she said.
The family emerged, unscathed, to find their house and others reduced to "just flat land."
She and her family set their sights on rebuilding and reopened Cupcakes by Liz on the same plot 13 months later. That 18-employee store is among roughly 500 damaged Joplin businesses that have returned, along with 250 new ones.
Explaining her post-tornado resolve, Easton fought back tears and was quick to credit her faith.
"When things are tough and seem impossible, God is faithful," she said.
Even though Rob Chappel figured the early televised reports were exaggerated — the Home Depot was gone, along with the Wal-Mart, and the city's biggest hospital was blown out — he assumed there would be deaths.
The Jasper County coroner made his way to a temporary morgue in a church's basement nearby. One body already had been dropped off. More came in, some in the back of pickup trucks, a few in body bags.
Soon, it became clear the church's basement wasn't going to work because it lacked power and was unwieldy to access. The dead were taken to the parking lot until refrigerated trailers arrived at the university across town the next morning.
"There was a sense of being overwhelmed to a point. I never experienced such a thing and hopefully never will again," Chappel said.
But he said he was struck by the compassion he witnessed, from restaurants hauling in food for the displaced to embalmers and funeral directors coming in from many miles away.
"Everybody goes about their daily lives, but when someone's in need they all come together," he said.
Joplin also is recovering. Within a year of the tornado, the city's population dropped 1.3 percent. But according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, the current population, at nearly 52,000 residents, is higher than it was before the storm.
Mercy Hospital Joplin and the local high school have been rebuilt, as have most of the roughly 500 damaged businesses. The new $465 million hospital was rebuilt to withstand winds of up to 250 mph.
On Sunday, the fifth anniversary of the storm, Gov. Jay Nixon will address the high school's commencement ceremony and attend a public remembrance at Cunningham Park.
"In a way, they're difficult," Mark Norton said of past anniversaries. "But for us, it's another year we got through. Every day, we wake up with the same pain as when it happened. It really is just another day, but almost an accomplishment for us that we got through another year without him."