Joplin tornado 10 years later: Residents remember the deadly disaster that changed lives forever

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JOPLIN, Mo. — Saturday marks 10 years since the deadliest tornado in modern day history flattened the city of Joplin, Missouri.

Dr. Tim O’Keefe was working in the emergency room at St. John’s Hospital on May 22, 2011, when an EF-5 tornado ripped through the city.

“You could hear the storm outside brewing,” he said. “The sound was getting very loud, like a jet engine.”

O’Keefe said first the power went out, and the generators kicked on, which was normal. But then the generators failed, which was not normal.

The night only got more abnormal from there.

“The whole ceiling lifted up and blew down really hard and knocked a bunch of debris down on me,” he said.

The chaos continued.

“The last thing the tornado did was blow the fuel tanks on the helicopters,” O’Keefe said. “At that point, it blew the jet fuel straight through the E.R.”

Doors were jammed and people were trapped. Video of the hospital afterward shows windows blown out, walls torn off and some sections completely destroyed.

“It’s pitch black because there’s no power. Most of the emergency lights got torn off the wall or destroyed. Water is dripping in from the pipes,” O’Keefe said. “It became clear the building was dead, and we needed to get out.”

But nothing could prepare him for what he was about to see.

“The thing that I remember the most was the few trees standing. It was just the trunk,” O’Keefe said. “And then you realize across from the hospital is an entire neighborhood of single family homes. There’s nothing sticking up more than 4 or 5 feet. It’s just flat.”

Using what little resources he had available, O’Keefe got to work right away.

“I stayed in the hospital area, and we worked our way around the neighborhoods, finding people and transporting all night,” he said.

About 3 miles down the road, the tornado had reached wind speeds of more than 200 mph when it hit a Home Depot.

“My aunt called and said there’s a tornado, and you need to to take shelter now!” Mason Lillard recalled.

But Lillard’s grandfather was locked inside that Home Depot, leaving Mason, her grandmother and cousin Lage in the truck with no where to go.

“We started praying, and I felt something touch my shoulder, and I looked up and thought it was my cousin,” Lillard said. “And I looked up and there was two angels in the backseat, one by me and one by him.”

The EF-5 tornado flipped their truck on its side, sending Lillard and her family flying.

“I looked up and saw a 2-by-4 flying around in circles and saw we were inside the tornado,” she said.

The storm threw the truck from the middle of the parking lot back into the lawn and garden section. It threw her cousin out of the truck, leading to life-threatening injuries. Her cousin is now paralyzed on one side of his body.

“I had a 1-inch piece of angle iron go through my right shoulder, broke seven ribs, puncture my lower lung and come out my back, a quarter-inch from my spine and a quarter-inch from my liver,” she said.

Since then, Lillard has needed 13 surgeries.

But she and her cousin are both alive, and Lillard knows this second chance at life is a gift.

“I honestly thought I was going to die. I really did,” she said. “God saved me for a purpose.”

That purpose, she said, is to help and serve others during their times of need. She’s now in school to become an EMT.

“I get to go on one of my clinicals at the station that was the ambulance that helped save me,” Lillard said. “And I get to work with one of the people that helped saved me on one of my clinical routes.”

Like Lillard, the city of Joplin has come a long way since that tragic day. And although time heals all wounds, reminders of that day remain.

“I’ve got battle scars,” she said. “I know what I’ve been through. I can look at them and be like, ‘I’ve been through worse.”

That day, 161 lives were lost. Thousands of first responders and volunteers from across the region rushed to the city to help and offer aid.

Officer Jeff Taylor was one of them. The Riverside police officer volunteered to assist in Joplin. One day after the tornado, while on disaster response duty, he was struck by lightning and later died.

He was the first officer in the history of the Riverside Police Department to die in the line of duty and the first emergency disaster responder to die as a result of the Joplin tornado.

“The folks of Riverside should be pretty proud of him,” O’Keefe said. “His family should know that a lot of us have not forgotten. I have not forgotten him. He embodies what the region did for us.”

Another thing that hasn’t been forgotten: May 22, 2011. A day that changed the lives of the people of Joplin forever.

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