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In Joplin, Uncertainty Abounds as Hunt for Missing Tornado Victims Continues

May 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new round of storms across the Midwest on Tuesday killed at least 14 people and leveled many homes in Oklahoma City, its suburbs and towns to the north and south. In Joplin, Mo., crews continue to look for survivors of the major tornado that struck there on Sunday. Kwame Holman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The plague of tornadoes in the Midwest claimed 14 more victims overnight in Oklahoma and several other states. And more storms whirled into life today, while the people of Joplin, Mo., continued searching for their own dead and missing.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has the story.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nerves already were on edge across the Midwest, as forecasters issued a new wave of warnings. Kansas City, Mo., went on alert, and the storm system threatened half-a-dozen other states as it headed east.

Less than 24 hours earlier, tornadoes tore their way across Oklahoma.

MAN: This was a large tornado that came through here.

KWAME HOLMAN: Damage in Oklahoma City, its suburbs and towns to the north and south was severe, with many homes reduced to little more than foundations.

PERSON: We’re OK. We’re OK.

KWAME HOLMAN: The experience was terrifying for a group in Canton, Okla. They captured video of a tornado churning across water.

Another funnel cloud tore a path through the town of Chickasha. Some houses were untouched, while others nearby were flattened.

MAN: Had the house here. We had a three-car garage, two stories with a garage apartment, a silo, another house. My wife’s car, her new car was in the garage. It’s in the tree.

PATRICIA COLLIER, tornado victim: When I got here, not only my house, but my neighbor’s house and my neighbor beside them — was all gone.

KWAME HOLMAN: Arkansas also was bombarded last night.

MAN: Is there anybody here?

KWAME HOLMAN: First-responders were on the scene in Denning right away, helping the injured. They pulled a woman with a heart condition from rubble that used to be her house. This morning, unharmed Denning residents ventured outside to survey what was left.

MAN: Look what has blown in here.

KWAME HOLMAN: And storms in Texas brought golf ball-sized hail and even forced fans to evacuate from the upper deck at a Texas Rangers baseball game.

The Tuesday night storms also set sirens wailing again in Joplin, Mo. The city was ravaged on Sunday by one of the worst tornadoes ever recorded. It’s now been confirmed as an EF-5, the strongest kind, with winds that topped 200 miles an hour.

WOMAN: Seeing this right now, I’m in shock. I can’t even — it doesn’t even look the same.

KWAME HOLMAN: More than 120 people were killed in Joplin, and today, the search for bodies and survivors went on. Trained dogs again aided rescue crews in pinpointing where they should focus. The city’s St. John’s Medical Center was hit squarely by the twister. This morning, structural engineers ventured inside to see if the building could be saved.

GARY PULSIPHER, St. John’s Medical Center: You’re probably wondering a little bit about the facility behind us. It truly was like a bomb went off inside, almost on every floor. It’s an amazing scene in there. And hopefully, we will be able to have some pictures in next while for you to look at.

But we’re not certain of the structure, if the structure is going to be able to support another facility here, or if we will need to rebuild.

KWAME HOLMAN: But whatever the fate of the building, the head of the hospital’s parent company praised the actions of the people involved.

LYNN BRITTON, Sisters of Mercy Health Systems: I want to tell you how absolutely awed and inspired I am by what I have witnessed here since Monday morning.

We got here Monday morning and began to assess what had happened to the Mercy co-workers and physicians and Mercy facilities. But we witnessed amazing, heroic, courageous activities by the community. No matter where I went in the city since I have been, I have seen the community rallying around recovery. And those are such great signs that Joplin is going to come back stronger than it has ever been before.

KWAME HOLMAN: For now, many in Joplin still were reliving the moments when death seemed close at hand.

MAN: It was a hot water tank that hit me the first time, it looks like, and then the refrigerator is what I had to pull off my baby.

MAN: And I felt — felt suction just pulling me.

KWAME HOLMAN: Earl Fassel was visiting Joplin with his wife on Sunday. They went into the Wal-Mart to try to ride out the weather, but the storm followed them.

EARL FASSEL, tornado survivor: We looked up and saw the ceiling tiles starting to float around. We got a cool breeze that came through, and it felt very eerie, a loud crack, and then just an extremely loud roar, some screams. And, just, you can’t imagine that roar.

KWAME HOLMAN: A collapsed wall shielded the Fassels from the worst. When they crawled out, they saw others who’d been killed.

EARL FASSEL: We realized, right to the side of us, we were going by someone that didn’t make it.

KWAME HOLMAN: For many others, there still is no certainty. Up to 1,500 people are listed as missing.

Steven Campbell is looking for his wife, Tami, who was lying next to him when the tornado hit.

STEVEN CAMPBELL, tornado survivor: I heard her scream. And then, right after she screamed, that’s when the whole thing collapsed on us. That was — that was the end of it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Others have taken to social media sites such as Facebook to search for loved ones. In one case alone, more than 19,000 people supported the Help Find Will Norton community page, rallying around the teen’s friends and family’s attempts to look for him.

In addition to the dead and missing, some 750 people were injured by the Joplin tornado.