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More than 200 in Joplin unaccounted for since tornado, officials say

Missouri officials have yet to list the names of the dead, pending positive identifications. Families of those missing since the tornado are frustrated because without any confirmation of death, they have to keep searching.

May 26, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Shandie Spencer recovers her wedding dress from the basement of her tornado-wrecked home in Joplin, Mo. Many in the town continued to search for missing relatives.
Shandie Spencer recovers her wedding dress from the basement of her tornado-wrecked… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )

Reporting from Joplin, Mo. — Missouri officials announced Thursday that more than 200 residents of Joplin remain unaccounted for in the wake of the massive tornado that swept through the city. Mark Lindquist, however, is not among them.

For agonizing hours in the wake of Sunday's storm, Lindquist's sister, Linda Lindquist-Baldwin, and other family members combed the area around the group home for the disabled where the 51-year-old Joplin resident had been working when the twister struck. Most of the people in the building had been found dead. Could Lindquist have lived?

His family members scoured the debris and called every hospital within 100 miles. They approached officials at the morgue where bodies of the 126 confirmed dead have been gathered. No one knew. Then, they heard that an unidentified man was in the intensive care unit at Freeman Hospital West.

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

But the man was unconscious, his face so swollen he was unrecognizable.

"The one thing about him is he has hazel eyes, and in one eye, there's a little brown fleck. They looked, and the little brown fleck was there," Lindquist-Baldwin said Thursday, not long after leaving her brother's room in the intensive care unit. The now-identified Lindquist remains there in guarded condition with substantial injuries to his lungs.

"They say it's going to be a long, uphill battle. But he's young, and he's healthy, and he's such a fighter."

Since the tornado struck, Joplin has been wrestling with spotty phone service, chaotic traffic, destroyed records and imperfect coordination among disaster relief agencies, even as families around the country have been struggling to determine the whereabouts of missing friends and relatives.

By Wednesday, the city manager's office had logged 7,000 such queries, a logjam that prompted Gov. Jay Nixon to announce Thursday that Department of Public Safety investigators had taken on the task of identifying the missing and had narrowed the confirmed list to 232. By the end of the day, that number had shrunk by 13 names as people with information stepped forward.

"We will keep a relentless focus on search, rescue and identification of those 232 people, and we will not rest until everyone has been accounted for and that number is zero," Nixon told hundreds of people at a meeting on government assistance services.

With no list of the names of the dead officially published, many family members have grown increasingly frustrated. But officials at the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team have said they will release no names until forensic evidence, including dental records, fingerprints, or other physical identifying marks, confirms identities.

Seven such identifications were completed Thursday, said Doug Nelson, a staffer at the governor's office.

"They have got to be 100% accurate before they deliver the news to the family," Nelson said. Positive identifications have been delayed, he said, because so many doctors' offices and dental clinics were destroyed by the tornado.

"Just getting the medical records is a challenge," he said.

For families with no confirmation that their missing relative is dead, there is little choice but to continue searching. Some have started Facebook pages; more than 40,000 people have "liked" the FindWillNorton page for 18-year-old Will Norton. He was on his way home from the graduation ceremony at Joplin High School with his father when the twister rushed over their car, pulling Norton through the sunroof.

"Everyone, tears are finally coming more frequently," the teenager's aunt, Tracey Presslor, who has been acting as a coordinator of the public outreach effort, posted Thursday afternoon. "Nothing has been this hard. Still no Will."

Sharyn Dawson, who has been looking for her husband's 74-year-old mother, Patricia Dawson, said she understands the difficulty of confirming victims, which has left her with little choice but to keep looking until there is news.

Dawson and her husband have spent days searching around her mother-in-law's now-smashed apartment building. On Wednesday, 15 large men from Genesis Metro Church showed up unannounced at the scene, asking whether they could help.

"We don't even know them. But those big guys, they helped move some of the heaviest stuff. They just made work of it like it was nothing."

But the results were — nothing.

"I don't want to jump on that bandwagon of people who have been screaming and yelling about how this process has worked. They don't understand how the process works. Neither do I," Dawson said.

"But I am almost to that place where I really want to know if she's in the morgue so I can quit wondering what happened."

Photos: Tornado hits Joplin, Mo.

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Special correspondent Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

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