Warm air rises. The earth is an elegant machine, and this is one of its simple and tireless engines, recycling the oceans into life-giving rains, wafting rainbow-striped hot-air balloons into clear skies, putting the dance in the flame of a birthday candle. This law must not be thwarted. There is hell to pay.
On Sunday, May 22, sometime after 5 p.m. C.T. in the Midwest, a column of warm air struggled against a ceiling of colder air pouring in from the north. When at last the irresistible engine pushed a hole through the ceiling, the pent-up energy shot upward in a mad rush, whirling and roaring. It could have happened anywhere on the mostly empty prairie. This time it happened as the air mass passed through the south side of Joplin, Mo.
It sucked the roof from St. John's Regional Medical Center and shattered the windows, sweeping reams of medical records heavenward. It snipped utility lines like thread and pulverized St. Mary's Church and school yet left the giant cross towering over the rubble, unscathed.
Chewing through homes, apartment houses and storefronts, the vortex crossed Main Street and climbed a hill toward the house where Kay Boyd, 63, was listening to KSN newscaster Caitlin McArdle's increasingly urgent command: "Take cover! I'm telling you, take cover right now!" Boyd wanted to hide in the tub, but her husband Ed, 65, steered her into a closet beneath the stairs. "It seemed like it went on forever," she said the broken glass and plaster and beams hammering at the closet door in the screaming wind but forever was only a matter of seconds.
Aggie Elbert, 84, cowered in her basement with her daughter and small grandchildren, thankful for a cache of hard hats as her house exploded overhead. The storm crested the hill and started down toward Joplin High School, splintering a neighborhood as it went. Pamela Merriman, four days shy of 28, forgot the taco meat on the stove, called for her children, rushed them into the bathroom and wrapped them in a quilt. In the deafening wind, she hugged Seth, 9, and Samia, 3, on the floor of the shower, scarcely able to hear the old brick fireplace tumbling through the living-room floor, or the garage door crashing through the wall beside her, or the bleachers from the high school ball field as they whistled across a city block and wrapped around her front-yard tree.
The tempest bent the goalposts flat to the ground and riddled the gridiron with timber, pipe fragments, bits of asphalt shingles and a bouquet of artificial flowers. It peeled open the high school gym, flinging a roof girder hundreds of yards across Iowa Street. Another school, Franklin Tech, fell in a heap.
With the recklessness of youth, Allen Godby, 22, raced toward his mother-in-law's house with a carload of assorted family members. He is from Oklahoma, "so I've been outrunning tornadoes all my life," he says. He did not outrun this one. Pulling into the yard, he tore at his daughter's seat belt as the twister finished with the high school and crossed the street. Godby fell to the ground on top of 4-year-old DaNia. Spinning debris raked his back and head. He felt himself being sucked from the ground and dug his fingers into the mud. When at last he looked up, he thought the whole family must be dead but one by one they called weakly from the rubble.
Onward the storm churned, destroying some 2,000 structures, damaging 6,000 more, tearing up 1,800 acres of city built over many decades. It ripped its way across Range Line Road, a busy commercial corridor, burst the Home Depot, dropped the Walmart roof onto the heads of shoppers. Jonathan Merriman's cell phone rang. It was his wife Pamela calling. She was trapped with the kids in the shower under the garage door. She needed him, and he wanted to go to her, but first he had to survive. He crawled under the sinks in the Walmart bathroom as the roof flew off and the walls fell in and the sinks somehow held steady and Jonathan was safe.