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Joplin, Mo., tornado witness: 'Swath cut through town is huge'

May 22, 2011|By Megan Garvey | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Emergency personnel walk through a neighborhood severely damaged by a tornado near the Joplin Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo.
Emergency personnel walk through a neighborhood severely damaged by a… (Mark Schiefelbein / Associated…)

In the moments between the first and second tornado sirens that sounded the warning in Joplin, Mo., on Sunday evening, Sara Ferguson knelt in prayer inside a church classroom.

The congregation of Citywide Christian Fellowship Church had been in the middle of services when a few parishioners who'd been keeping watch on the darkening skies outside came back to say it was time to seek safety.

"There was a bit of hail and it was raining terrible," said Ferguson, 50, who was reached by phone. "We're up on a hill and the men who stayed at the door watched the tornado pass by a few blocks from us."

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

Once it was over, she and her husband made their way to their home, passing a scene of unfathomable destruction. A trip that typically takes 10 minutes lasted an hour and a half.

"I cried the whole way," she said.

They dodged downed power lines. They passed St. John's Regional Medical Center, where it "looked like bomb had gone off."

A residential area of town she estimated to be about 10 blocks in size "looked like it was just gone."

"Cars were crumpled up like tin cans," she said. "Businesses were leveled. One of the Wal-Marts is gone, a Lowe's is damaged and there are still people trapped inside."

"We've had tornadoes but this is one one the worst ever here," she said. "The swath that cut through town was huge."

Her mind was occupied the whole time with worries for her two sons, her brother and countless friends she has made in her three decades living in Joplin.

"We were trying to reach our kids," she said, heart-wrenching minutes of wait. One son's apartment was gone, but he was found safe at work. Another son weathered the storm with his wife and child at their home, which was damaged.

Ferguson's brother, whose home is located near her son's devastated apartment, had not yet been heard from. A nephew whose house she knows is gone is also missing.

"It's going to be a long night, " she said.

Ferguson said she had watched reports of the devastating tornadoes in the South and had cried and prayed for those victims. Now, she said, she is praying for those much closer to home.

"I love Joplin. It's a great place to live," she said. "But when these tornadoes come through it can be very scary."

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

Story: Tornado survivors emerge from the ruin; twister kills at least 89 in Joplin, Mo.

megan.garvey@latimes.com

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