Nightly News   |  May 23, 2011

Tornado witness: 'There are things that just don't belong'

Survivors of the massive tornado that tore through Joplin, MO struggle to make sense of the devastation they've witnessed. NBC's Al Roker reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

WILLIAMS: And good evening from Joplin , Missouri .

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Joplin, Missouri): And this is, of course, now more than any community anywhere should ever be forced to endure. In just the space of the last hour, we have been through a hail storm , we've been through pouring, a deluge of rainfall, and now a shift in the wind direction. We're still in the grip of stormy weather here. And of course, what brings us here, 116 souls so far lost in this tornado . That's the death toll so far. Again, all the numbers here locally will likely change. Untold number of injured, and they're hoping for actual rescues. It makes this the single deadliest tornado since 1947 in the United States . We are talking about a storm which at its base was, give or take, about three-quarters a mile across. Reports of multiple funnels coming off the one anvil-shaped storm. It was on the ground, it looks like, for about a six-mile path while it was here, right through Joplin , Missouri . Winds at the core, at their height, estimated between 190 and 198 miles per hour . In lay terms, about as much energy as Mother Nature can focus on any one spot at any one time, and it happened in this community, Joplin , Missouri . Behind us St. John's Hospital , the regional medical center here. You may have already heard that X-rays and paperwork from this hospital was found upwards of 60 miles from here. That's because the debris cloud went up in the air 18,000 feet, the altitude where some commercial airliners fly. So it was carried at that altitude for several miles. We have a huge team on the ground here, and among those to arrive first for us NBC 's Al Roker , who's going to start off our coverage tonight. This is among the most concentrated energy anywhere on the planet.

AL ROKER reporting: Brian , I've never seen anything like this, even including Tuscaloosa . We're talking about hearing sirens, the crack of thunder, the flash of lightning. It has been like this all day. It continues to get worse. The good news is there has been -- there have been some rays of sunshine in that seven people have been pulled from rubble today.

WILLIAMS: That's right .

ROKER: So that is good news. But for a long time they are going to be cleaning up. The work is really just getting to -- getting started.

Unidentified Man: I got debris on the ground right here! I got debris on the ground!

ROKER: The eye of the storm , Joplin , Missouri .

Man: I have a large, destructive tornado . It's on the southwest side of Joplin .

ROKER: A massive tornado three-quarters of a mile wide tore through Joplin , throwing debris 18,000 feet into the air.

Man: It's tearing up the entire city.

ROKER: City streets and neighborhoods stripped bare in minutes. Within moments, rescue workers raced to the scene. Some using canines trying to find those trapped in the rubble. The Weather Channel 's Mike Bettes was chasing the tornado when it hit ground. He was one of the first on the scene.

MIKE BETTES reporting: Oh, I've never seen a scene like this before. We just rolled up and this tornado came through maybe 45 minutes ago. I've personally witnessed injuries and fatalities here, unfortunately, in Joplin . We're just going through the neighborhood here trying to figure out if anyone else needs help. There's -- people are just scrambling right now. I want you to kind of take a scope of the -- of the damage. It's just kind of taking my breath away here. Multiple homes, businesses destroyed. Cars that have been flipped and mangled debris everywhere you look. People are trying to just help people out any way they can.

ROKER: One of the area's primary sources of emergency care, St. John's Regional Medical Center was also destroyed.

Dr. RON SMALLING: I'm a intervention cardiologist.

ROKER: Dr. Ron Smalling was on duty when the tornado hit.

Dr. SMALLING: When we came out it looked like in a war zone. It looked like we'd been hit with a bombed. And so we rushed to the patients. Some of them were on ventilators, but they were all -- some of them were cut up with glass. All the windows in the 12-bed CCU were all blown out and the ceiling tiles were all down. So we began to mobilize and get the patients out of the rooms.

ROKER: The raw emotion of the moment was difficult for everyone witnessing it.

BETTES: It's tough, no question about that. Just tornado devastation as far as the eye can see . And off in the distance there, beyond the firefighters, they're doing search and rescue right now. We even have fires that are erupting in Joplin . It really is an unfolding scene, changes minute by minute. Neighbors are trying to pull -- oh, they just pulled out their dog right -- that is great. They just -- they just pulled a dog, he looks to be OK, out of the house there. That's great news.

Mr. JOHN DEGRATH: There were bodies in the park last night.

ROKER: John Degrath has lived in Joplin his whole life. Have you ever seen anything like this?

Mr. DEGRATH: No, no, never, never. This is what I only -- I only see maybe on TV , this bad. But I mean, the trees, look, the bark is stripped from the trees. There are things that just don't belong in...

ROKER: You're missing a neighbor.

Mr. DEGRATH: Larry , my neighbor. He's 73. I don't know where he's at. I know he was home.

ROKER: Overworked rescue workers and volunteers make it to Larry 's house. They searched the wreckage hoping to find him alive. As the search for Larry and other victims go on, survivors struggle to make sense of their losses.