May 22nd, 2011 had been a beautiful day, a happy one. My parents and I drove through Northwestern Arkansas early that day from a softball tournament, and the sun shone warmly through partial clouds. We spent most of the afternoon shopping in Joplin, Missouri, a town just an hour from where we lived, and we decided to end our spree at Walmart.
Very few customers took the Walmart employees seriously when they informed us of a tornado warning, including my parents and me.
The Walmart worker appeared to be bored when she suggested we take shelter at the back of the store, so with just one item left on our shopping list, we planned to check out and beat the mild thunderstorm. Within two minutes of her warning, more employees approached us, one by one, each looking more serious than the last.
“Folks, this weather is severe and approaching quickly. You need to take shelter at the back of the store now,” the man repeated more seriously than the previous warnings. After he practically begged us, we wheeled our cart to the electronics. Over one hundred people stood around us buzzing with conversation, and the space grew more crowded with every step.
At this point, I texted my friend from home, saying Apparently, there are tornado warnings north of us, so they are forcing us to stay at the back of the store. In Missouri, tornado warnings occur regularly, but they’ve never turned into anything serious. I joked around with my friend and said something along the lines of Wouldn’t it be funny if there was actually a tornado?
Within ten minutes, the employees sent the customers farther back into the store. Some went into the back room in the auto center and restrooms, and we settled by the video games and televisions. Five minutes later, they claimed the “storms” were getting stronger, and ordered everyone to pack into the back room as tightly as we could. We stopped at the center of that room and stood as strangers piled in shoulder to shoulder. The buzzing slowed down. People began to twiddle their thumbs and pace within the two-foot space, and others tapped their feet impatiently and complained that an employee wouldn’t let them go home.
“Should we go in there?” I asked as I pointed to the restrooms.
“We’ll stay here for now,” my dad said, but he looked uncertain. We stood there and waited, hoping for the weather to pass so we could go home.
Suddenly, the lights flickered off, then on again. Silence filled the room and a nervous feeling rose in my chest. Then again, the lights flickered off and on. What is going on? I thought to myself. Moments later, the lights went out permanently. The safety lights gave enough light to see the fearful expressions on every stranger.
One hundred and fifty people in that building listened silently. At first, the wind gently brushed the outside walls and thunder rumbled faintly. Then, the soft whistling of the wind gradually turned into a continuous howl, and through the safety lights, I saw the slight quivering of the ceiling tiles. Within seconds, the tiles bounced up and down rapidly.
“GET DOWN!” a man shouted from the crowd. One hundred and fifty people fell on to the hard ground as thunder struck and dreadfully shook the building. I laid on my stomach, one forearm resting on the cold floor and the other latched closely to my dad.
The events following that seemed to be forever, though it was only a few minutes. The sounds of splintering wood, shrieking wind, and crashing walls filled my ears. People screamed, people prayed desperately, and children whimpered. I could feel the cool rush of the high wind but could not feel its power since I was sheltered under my parents. Occasionally, people cried out, “Is everybody okay?” and we answered back.
“Pray, Jr.,” my mom said to my dad, and as he spit out curse words, “I don’t think God likes that word!” He apologized. I tried to pray; however, I didn’t know how or what to say. So, I kept my head down and waited for the noise to subside.
“The worst is over,” my dad eventually said, giving me relief. Around that moment, I noticed a sharp pain in my right foot from something falling on it and crushing it into the hard ground. In just moments, the wind and thunder eased and eventually stopped.
I don’t know how long we stayed there until a couple men had gotten out and was able to lift the roof enough to bring light in. When the light came in, I finally looked around me and was shocked at everything I saw. Broken pieces of wall, splintered wood, items from the store, and a film of dirt covered the ground I laid on. The roof rested on our shoulders and my foot was still stuck under a large piece of wood. Wearing only flip flops, my foot was in pain and I was unable to wiggle it free. All I wanted was to get out, to go home and get out of the mess.
My dad was finally able to crawl out through a small hole and I followed, pulling my foot hard from under the wood, then ducking my head and carefully weaving through a narrow tunnel of debris. The dull blinding light struck me as I crawled through the tiny space and into a whole different world. The light rain lightly brushed my forehead as I stood on my feet. I no longer saw the roof above me or walls surrounding me. I could not see the floor I stood on. Instead, the roof and walls laid at my feet, burying over a hundred people who still had yet to get out. Those desperate people, including my mother, already began to cry out for help.
The section of the roof where we escaped nearly touched the ground. The other end angled upward on a pile of rubble toward the back-parking lot of Wal-Mart. More people began to crawl out as two men jumped up on the pile of rubble where the roof ended. They began to call out for the children to go first. Then a man held out a helping hand to me so I could climb up and over to the parking lot.
“No,” I declared, “I will stay here.” I couldn’t leave my family. I had to help at least until my mom got out. The man did not argue and turned to help another child. I did not know how much help a thirteen-year-old girl would be, but I did my best. Our goal was to locate any thing in that area that would help to prop up the roof in order to allow more room for people to get out.
A man located a baby carrier and pushed it under the roof as I, my father, and a couple men lifted it up to help him out.
People panicked, and understandably, they did not panic in a healthy way. As more people got out, the roof became heavier for those who were still stuck underneath. The men ordered people to climb over one at a time. However, those frightened people could not wait and began to climb over four to five at a time. The people underneath carried all of their weight on top of the heavy roof.
“Stop climbing on me!” my mother would yell. They didn’t listen. They kept climbing until they made it out. Finally, she was able to stick her head through a small hole, surrounded by broken metal. A small piece of hail landed in her hair as I saw lightning flash close by. That showed me that we were still unsafe, despite the fact that we survived. My mom made it out soon after and told me to go ahead and leave. I found the helping hand of a nice man and placed my foot on small light-colored wooden strips running across the roof. I carefully walked on these strips, made it to the very top, and faced a section of wall angling downward to the parking lot. Hesitantly, I stepped on the slippery wall and slid down until my feet hit the wet pavement.
At that moment, I looked back at what I had just escaped. The building was gone. The only thing left standing was the front wall with everything else torn to pieces. I suddenly felt like I was in a war zone. The light rain fell from the solemn gray sky and gently hit my forehead, showing me that this was real. This was not a dream. I looked around at the hundreds of frightened people, praying, shivering, and looking for their families. I gazed calmly ahead as my family appeared over the slippery white wall, finally escaping the mess.
“Let’s get out of here,” my dad said as they approached. We silently walked around the building, looking at everything there was to see. Trees had split in half. The earth was uneven. Cars no longer looked like cars. Some cars were wrapped around tree trunks and branches. The air felt musty and smelled like gasoline. As we neared the front parking lot, the main road of Joplin, Missouri appeared in our sight. My heart immediately dropped.
“Oh my God,” my mom exclaimed. Everything was gone. I looked to the left, to the right, and straight ahead. Nothing. Not one building stood in sight. How could this have happened? Why did it happen to us? Then all I could think was, “How did we survive this?”
We searched the parking lot looking for our silver Nissan and hoped we wouldn’t find it wrapped around a tree. Luckily, we found it in the center of the parking lot on a pile of dirt with the front hood tore off, the windows blown out, every side banged up, and dirt piled inside the car. Also, a stick of wood, one inch in diameter had been plunged right into the car door. We were able to gather our weekend belongings from our car. Our arms were loaded, and we began to walk. My softball coach lived just a couple miles down the road, and our hopes were high that we’d eventually reach his house.
“I am sorry folks. There are gas leaks along this road and it is not safe to go through.”
We asked for any sort of exception to get through that road. We had nowhere else to go. He apologized and said he could not possibly let us through in case of an explosion. We turned around, upset and alone. We had no cell service to contact family, and we felt like the last people on earth. We turned west toward the main road. Fallen powerlines strung along the road. My mom continually informed me to be careful and not step on them.
A young woman pulled beside us in her dark (I think black) SUV and asked if we needed a ride. She was a Sam’s Club employee driving around to access the damage after checking on her family. We had no way to contact anyone, and most roads were closed off, so we let her take us to Sam’s on the other side of town, out of the path of the damage. We were grateful for just the intact building and the great hospitality by the employees for the next three hours. They let us change into dry—or drier—clothes and spend that time dialing at every chance we got in hopes for one call to go through. We could reach a cousin from home, and that’s it. We had to use him to reach my softball coach, who spent hours trying to navigate the closed roads to reach us. It wasn’t until sunset that he reached us, and just after my grandparents arrived from a casino across town. We packed ourselves tight into their car, and we made it home close to ten-thirty that evening, five hours after the tornado struck.
I never imagined that thirteen years may have been all the time I had to live. When an ordinary weekend on a softball field became life-threatening within an hour, I had to turn my innocence into strength for my family. 24 hours before, my teammates and I laid in the grass with noses pressed around an iPhone reading 5:59 pm, skeptically waiting for the world to “end” as it had been predicted for 6 o’clock on May 21st, 2011. We were just a group of ornery middle school girls laughing at the silly ways of the universe, never imagining anything bad to happen to us or our families. Just under 24 hours later, at 5:47 pm, is when the Walmart building and everything around it began to shake. Coincidence? I’ll probably never know.
What I do know is that my innocence helped me that day. The idea that nothing bad would happen to me that young. It happened so quick that I think it took months for it to register that I could have lost my life or one of my parents. Now, the older I get, the memory is still strong and the more I take these storms seriously. I don’t think I could handle it with as much strength a second time.
This is why I take storms seriously. When people laugh at tornado warnings and say “I ain’t scared of no naders,” I laugh a little, because I used to think the same thing. I still do when I have direct access to a basement. But no one will truly know until he or she has experienced one. Just because it’s never affected you or your town, it does not mean that it never will.
161 people lost their lives on that day to an EF-5 tornado, the deadliest and costliest in five decades. I consider myself and my family very lucky, and our experience has changed our outlook on severe storms. I only hope that nobody else has to survive a deadly storm to take them seriously.