Video: Death toll passes 140 in Joplin, Mo.

  1. Closed captioning of: Death toll passes 140 in Joplin, Mo.

    >>> where they are still trying to reconcile who lived and who died from last weekend's powerful tornado, the death toll grew again today to at least 142, with a significant number of people still unaccounted for. with ten more victims found, including a teenager swept away just hours after his high school graduation, this is now the deadliest tornado season in the u.s. since 1947 . at least 522 tornado deaths this year, from the upper midwest to the deep south . nbc's ron allen remains in joplin tonight for us and joins us right now with the latest. ron?

    >> reporter: good evening to you, lester. today town officials here said that the water is now safe to drink. and power has been restored to most parts of the city that are still standing but they are still counting their losses. about 100 people are still considered missing. some families still don't have a good idea of exactly what happened to their loved ones . somewhere in this rubble is the house where malisa crosby lived. her sister lindsay malina has been everywhere with this cell phone picture, telling how neighbors found crosley laying on her 9-year-old son, who survived with severe irnlgz. molina thinks her sister's body was taken to the morgue but she doesn't know for sure.

    >> we have comfort in the fact we know her last task on earth was to be a mother and protect her son.

    >> reporter: notifying families has become such a sensitive issue missouri's governor has asked forensic teams to work around the clock. but about 90 sets of remains have not been identified.

    >> it is our hope that with this accurate, respectful information that healing and mourning can begin.

    >> it is past but i understand there's a lot of victims here.

    >> reporter: will norton's family just got the news they did not want to hear.

    >> i thank all of you for supporting us and remember there are so many more people out there and people that need your help.

    >> reporter: they'd searched day and night since the tornado snatched the 18-year-old from his car on the drive home from his high school graduation. his body was found late friday in a pond. it is an emotional holiday weekend of tributes to loved ones lost in the storm. m. dean wells , 59, remembered for helping others survive the rubble of the home depot store, where he worked and perished.

    >> your teams are ready to go.

    >> reporter: through it all, help keeps coming. armies of volunteers from across the country.

    >> i feel so much sympathy for these families. i can't imagine. you know, i complain about gas prices . and here they are, you know, they have nothing.

    >> reporter: the main mission for this group, 2,000 strong? work through mountains of debris, helping joplin 's survivors salvage as much as they can of their lives.

    >> i've never seen anything like this my entire life, and i know i probably never will. it's just terribly shocking.

    >> reporter: tomorrow there will be a moment of silence here at 5:41 p.m ., the exact moment one week later after the tornado struck. that follows a memorial service . president obama will be here as well to see this destruction, to meet with families and first responders, and to offer the thoughts and prayers of the entire nation. lester?

    >> ron allen in joplin for

updated 5/29/2011 12:28:06 AM ET 2011-05-29T04:28:06

The numbers look increasingly bleak for families hoping for the best after a monster tornado that devastated the town of Joplin, as the city has raised the death toll to at least 139 and state officials say 100 people are still missing.

Thousands more people far beyond Joplin had been waiting for good news about a teen believed to have been ejected or sucked from his vehicle on the way home from graduation. Several social-networking efforts specifically focused on finding information about Will Norton.

But his family says he, too, is among the dead — found in a pond near where his truck was located.

"At least we know that he wasn't out there suffering," his aunt Tracey Presslor said, holding a framed portrait of her 18-year-old nephew at a news conference. "Knowing that he was gone right away was really a blessing for us."

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said Saturday during a news conference that the death toll rose by three to at least 142, but later revised that figure down to 139 without elaboration.

Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he could not confirm the city's updated death toll number. He said the state of Missouri currently places the death toll at 126, saying they have no reason to raise that number.

State officials say there are 142 sets of human remains at the morgue handling those killed by the storm and some could be from the same victim.

If the death toll does stand at 139, it would place this year's tornado death toll at 520 and make 2011 the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1950. Until now, the highest recorded death toll by the National Weather Service in a single year was 519 in 1953. There were deadlier storms before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates and not on precise figures.

On Saturday night, the Department of Public Safety made public a list of 73 people who had been confirmed dead and whose next of kin had been notified.

Story: Storms slam Eastern seaboard, more coming

The tornado — an EF-5 packing 200 mph winds —also injured more than 900 people. Tallying and identifying the dead and the missing has proven a complex, delicate and sometimes confusing exercise for both authorities and loved ones.

Missouri officials said Saturday that the number of people unaccounted for stands at 100. The Missouri Department of Public Safety said that within that number, nine people have been reported dead by their families, but state officials are working to confirm those.

Newton County coroner Mark Bridges said most, if not all, of the people brought to the temporary morgue could be identified this weekend. He described officials there as "making real good progress."

After a mistake immediately after the storm — four people thought they had identified one person's body, only to be wrong — authorities are relying instead on dental records, photos and unique tattoos or piercings, Bridges said. They've also used DNA tests in a handful of cases, he said.

"We learned the hard way at the start," he said. "It's bad for the families."

Asked about calls to open the morgue to all families of the missing, Bridges said doing so would be impractical. He described the site as a number of dark, refrigerated trailers holding body bags.

"There's no place to let them into," he said.

There have been 1,333 preliminary tornado reports in the U.S. through May 27, officials said, while the average number of confirmed tornadoes in a single year during the past decade has been 1,274.

Presslor said Saturday that the family received confirmation of his death late Friday night. She said her nephew's body was not found sooner because there was so much debris in the pond.

Family members had previously told The Associated Press that Norton and his father were still on the road when the storm hit. Mark Norton urged his son to pull over, but the teen's Hummer H3 flipped several times, throwing the young man from the vehicle, likely through the sunroof.

Mark Norton remains in the hospital and is "having a really tough time" after being told his son's body was found, Presslor said.

About a dozen of Norton's classmates stood in the back of the room as she spoke. His funeral arrangements are pending.

Presslor thanked the thousands of people who posted good wishes for Norton on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, and thanked all those who helped look for him. She urged those volunteers to keep looking for other people still missing.

"Please don't give up," she said.

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