Torn Asunder: How the Deadliest Twister in Decades Ripped Through Joplin, Mo.

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Edward Keating / Contact for Time

Ed Boyd pulled his wife Kay away from the tub she was heading for and into a closet under their stairs

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Afterward, Hounschell struggled from the debris, teetering in her black dress and high heels. Emerging from the basement, she could see the high school three blocks away, down the hill behind her house. That was new. Every structure, every leaf on every tree that had obscured the view was gone.

All around, there were voices calling for help and other dazed survivors creeping from belowground or picking their way through the ruins from closets and bathrooms. The smell from ruptured gas mains was overpowering. A house thundered into flames. Would-be rescuers dodged utility lines to reach loved ones. Jim Winters — Joe's dad — paused on his way to Hounschell's house to help a group of men lift a wall to free a trapped victim. Too late. The man bled to death before their eyes. "His skin just went white," Winters said. "I've watched a lot of horror movies, but ..."

Two blocks east, Regina Lane ducked under the steel bar that had narrowly missed piercing her head and blinked her eyes in disbelief. Her daughter Rachel Long — a voice on the cell phone moments before the storm hit, saying, "Mama, take care! I love you! I love you!" — was now running toward her with bare feet and a look of unfathomable relief.

The prospect of cleaning up Joplin seemed unimaginable, even as the hours turned into days. Perhaps a third of this city of 50,000 residents was damaged or destroyed, leaving a mess almost impossible to comprehend. An EF-5 tornado pens a signature that makes no sense. You stare and ponder until slowly it comes into focus: that's an upside-down, half-buried piano; a garage-door spring; the colored gravel from a fish tank; a car bumper entwined in a brass bed; a flat-screen TV with a door molding straight through it; the little man from the top of a soccer trophy; a Barbie shoe. Clean up suggests a return to an orderly past. In the coming weeks and months, Joplin will have to scrape bare a blasted hole in its heart.

And yet as people crept through the jumble, filling boxes almost at random with soggy clothing, ruined electronics, rescued photographs and woeful fragments of children's toys, what was most striking were the persistent expressions of gratitude. There was Aggie Elbert, who salvaged little more than an old clock and a broken statue of the Madonna and Child, murmuring, "God was good to us." Regina Lane, saying, "I don't know how we made it out, because so many perished. We're so fortunate." Ed Boyd, looking tearfully at the little closet under the staircase in the middle of his vanished home, declaring, "Those stairs saved our lives."

There was a lot of talk the day before the storm about whether the world would end. An old preacher in California had declared that time was running out and bought ads in major newspapers and on billboards to spread the news. The Joplin storm was a summons back to reality, a reminder that a world can end at any moment even as new worlds begin. Five patients died when the storm hit St. John's hospital; the same day, four babies were born at Freeman hospital across the street.

Pamela Merriman, now just two days shy of 28, had a sense of this as she looked -into the tiny triangle of space that had held her and her two children after the roof dropped and the walls tumbled and the bathroom was shoved into the living room under the garage door. Imagine a doghouse, then go a little smaller. "I feel really good that I was able to protect my children," she said.

She surveyed her former possessions, the stuff of a world now lost. "I'd be happy with just walking away from all of this," she concluded. "Dump it all and just start over. Happy birthday — I'm alive."

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