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Survivors tell of dread, loss after Missouri tornado

Rod Pace, Med Flight manager at St. John's Regional Medical Center, watched the tornado form to the southwest like so many before.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

From heroism, to disbelief to shock. Those were some of the stories being told by survivors of the Joplin twister. Below are some of those initial reactions to the tragedy.


'Felt like the building was breathing'
Rod Pace
, Med Flight manager at St. John's Regional Medical Center, watched the tornado form to the southwest like so many before.

He was on the second floor of St John's on Sunday evening to finish payroll before an expected frantic Monday. He'd wrapped up his work, but decided to stay an extra 15 to 20 minutes to let the weather pass.

Pace saw the swirling rain start to form about a mile off. The flags outside suddenly stopped blowing to the northeast, only to be pulled back to the west.

That was about the time the glass doors he was holding onto — the ones with the 100-pound magnet to keep them locked — were pulled open with Pace still holding on. He was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll, all the while holding on to the handles.

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He headed to the hospital's interior for cover. Then he heard the roar. Pace and a co-worker pushed on a door to make sure it stayed shut, but it kept swaying back and forth.

"I've heard people talk about being in tornadoes and saying it felt like the building was breathing," Pace said. "It was just like that."

Outside, an explosion. Glass shards pelted the exterior. Pace heard screams.

He helped pull debris off two people outside the emergency room.

"There was a lot of strength in the leadership in the hospital and ER here," Pace said, referring to the protection of those still inside before all could be evacuated. "Things were going as they were supposed to go."


'We were buried'
Joshua Wohlford
, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers sought shelter at a nearby Walmart when he saw the tornado bearing down on their trailer. They escaped serious injury when a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a tent over them as they huddled on the ground.

"It was 15 minutes of hell," Wohlford said. "We were buried."

The family was taken to a hospital, where a fleet of yellow school buses brought in people with minor injuries. Wohlford, 27, volunteered, helping the passengers unload.

Monday morning, one of those buses took his family to a shelter downtown. Their car totaled in the Walmart parking lot, they weren't sure how they would get home — or what would await them there.

An emergency worker searches a Walmart store that was severely damaged by a tornado in Joplin, Mo., Monday, May 22, 2011. A large tornado moved through much of the city Sunday, damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)Charlie Riedel / AP


'Getting hit by rocks'
Leslie Swatosh
ducked into a liquor store with several others as the tornado descended on them. The group huddled on the floor holding onto each other, and prayed.

"We were getting hit by rocks and I don't even know what hit me," said Swatosh. When the tornado passed, the store was destroyed but those inside were all alive, she said.

"Everyone in that store was blessed. There was nothing of that store left," said Swatosh.


Memories of Korean War
Donald and Helen Capps
barely survived the destruction of their home, where they cowered in the first floor hallway.

"We covered our heads with a couple of pillows and the house collapsed around us," Capps, 79, said.

Capps is a Korean War veteran and said the devastation reminded him of a war zone.

"Joplin looked like some of the battles I saw in Korea," he said.

Donald and Helen Capps of Joplin, Mo., sit in a temporary Red Cross shelter at the Robert Ellis Young Gymnasium at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo., Monday, May 23, 2011. The Capps lost their home after a destructive tornado moved through Joplin on Sunday evening, killing at least 89 people and injuring hundreds more. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)Mark Schiefelbein / FR80540 AP


Worried about future storms
Brenna Burzinski
took cover from the tornado in the laundry room of her second floor apartment with a boyfriend.

"Everything was being torn apart around us," Burzinski said. "It was terrifying. We were sure we were going to die."

Burzinski said she later saw bodies being pulled from her apartment building.

"I don't know how we lived," she said. "I don't know how any of us lived."

She dreads that next dark sky.

"I'll be scared that every storm will be a tornado," she said.


Dozens huddle inside church
Floyd and Donna Rockwell
joined some 100 fellow worshipers at a Baptist church in running for shelter in a children's Sunday school room.

Rockwell, 74, lay across his 71-year-old wife to try to protect her as the funnel cloud took off the church roof and sent cinder block walls tumbling down.

Rockwell saw at least one body pulled from the rubble but was told six more people didn't survive. When the shaken couple tried to return to their home, they found it had also been lost to the storm. Rockwell is sure the couple would have died had they been there instead of at church.

"It's gone," he said. "We're starting over."


'Saw 2 or 3 dead bodies'
Kelley Fritz rummaged through the remains of a storage building on Monday with her husband, Jimmy. But they quickly realized they'd never find the things they had stored there.

They also lost many of the belongings in their home after the twister ripped away their roof. Their sons, ages 20 and 17, both Eagle Scouts, went out in the neighborhood and quickly realized every home was destroyed.

"My sons had deceased children in their arms when they came back. My husband and I went out and saw 2 or 3 dead bodies on the ground," she said.

Fritz said she was surprised she had survived. "You could just feel the air pull up and it was so painful. I didn't think we were going to make it, it happened so fast."


'I was scared to death'
Ken Ayton told NBC's TODAY show that he credits his dogs with helping him survive.

"They were going crazy, and I realized something was wrong, so I brought them in, and then the sirens went off."

As the tornado ripped through his neighborhood, Ayton, who could see the oncoming storm from his bathroom, decided to seek shelter in his bathtub.

"I had heard of houses being leveled and people being saved by being in the bathtub ... I covered up with the pillows, and waited to see what would happen."

The tub — near an outside wall of his home — kept Ayton safe, but it was a harrowing experience.

PhotoBlog: iPhone panoramic photograph of tornado devastation

"I was scared to death. I really, quite frankly, did not think I would be standing here today talking to you."


'Everything in that neighborhood is gone'
Justin Gibson
huddled with three relatives outside the tangled debris of a Home Depot. He pointed to a black pickup that had been tossed into the store's ruins and said it belonged to his roommate's brother, who was last seen in the store with his two young daughters.

Gibson, who has three children of his own, said his home was leveled and "everything in that neighborhood is gone. The high school, the churches, the grocery store. I can't get ahold of my ex-wife to see how my kids are."

"I don't know the extent of this yet," he said, "but I know I'll have friends and family dead."


'For two to three blocks, it's just leveled'
Matt Sheffer
dodged downed power lines, trees and closed streets to make it to his dental office across from the hospital. Rubble littered a flattened lot where a pharmacy, gas station and some doctors' offices once stood.

"My office is totally gone. Probably for two to three blocks, it's just leveled," Sheffer said. "The building that my office was in was not flimsy. It was 30 years old and two layers of brick. It was very sturdy and well built."


High school in ruins
Kerry Sachetta
, the principal of a destroyed Joplin High School, was among about 75 to 100 stragglers who took cover from the storm in a basement at Missouri Southern State University after the high school graduation ceremony on Sunday afternoon.

As he departed, he began receiving text messages that his high school had been destroyed.

He headed there and found the top part of the auditorium gone, the band and music rooms caved in, windows blown out and his office missing its roof. Fifty-year-old trees outside the school had been stripped of their limbs.

Two churches across the street were "completely gone," and Sachetta was stunned by the condition of the nearby Franklin Technology Center.

"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," he said. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."

A view of the destruction at Joplin High School after a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Missouri May 23, 2011. At least 89 people have died in a monster tornado that left a path of destruction nearly a mile (1 km) wide through the heart of Joplin, Missouri, and directly hit the small Midwestern city's main hospital, local officials said on Monday. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)MIKE STONE / X02003

Families disoriented
Jeff Lehr
, a reporter for the Joplin Globe, said he was upstairs in his home when the storm hit but was able to make his way to a basement closet. The storm tore the roof off his house, but he was safe. When he emerged, he found people wandering through the streets, covered in mud.

"I'm talking to them, asking if they knew where their family is," Lehr said. "Some of them didn't know and weren't sure where they were. All the street markers were gone."


Saved by mattress
Sharon Hurtt and Bill Dearing
had no basement to flee to when the tornado descended on their single-story home, so they huddled in a closet between two bedrooms. Within minutes, the roof was gone and powerful winds ripped the door off the closet.

"We were holding on to keep from blowing away," said Hurtt.

A mattress blown off the bed somehow became wedged in the doorway.

"It probably saved us," said Hurtt.

When the couple emerged, the daycare center next door was gone and mangled cars and other debris littered their yard.


Restaurant refrigerator served as shelter
Carla Tabares
said she, her husband and several families with children squeezed into the walk-in refrigerator of an Outback Steakhouse restaurant when the twister neared, huddling in the chilly darkness until the howling of the storm passed.

"It was really awful, really scary," she said. The restaurant was largely unscathed, but other buildings were badly damaged. "I'm just thankful we got out alive, and I really feel sorry for the people who didn't."


Racing through debris
Denise Bayless
said she and her husband were at church when their adult son called to say the tornado was hitting his house. The couple got in their car to race to his aid.

"We just had to weave in and out of debris. Power lines were down everywhere, and you could smell gas," she said.

After stopping to assist a woman they heard screaming, trapped inside her home, Bayless said she ran five blocks to her son's house, where she found every home on the street — some 20 dwellings including his — were gone.

"I just lost all my bearings. There was nothing that looked familiar," said Bayless, whose son was unhurt.


Kitchen caved in
Matthew Parks
works at a homeless shelter, where he said he and his pregnant wife may become residents — at least for the time being.

They weren't home when the tornado hit but returned Monday morning to find the ceiling in the kitchen caved in, water soaking the floor and carpet and furniture was tossed about. The only room spared was the nursery prepared for their first child — it had virtually no damage.

While Parks collected baby clothes and other items from the nursery, his parents, Eileen and Brian Parks swept up broken glass and mopped water from the wood floor.

Eileen Parks had struggled to reach her son and daughter-in-law Sunday night and said she was just happy they were OK.

"The phones were out and I thought, 'Oh Matthew, please call me,'" she said.