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Survivors of Joplin disaster recall narrow escapes

By The Associated Press Published: May 23, 2011

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Rod Pace, manager of the Med Flight helicopter service at St. John's Regional Medical Center, had just finished payroll paperwork Sunday evening when he decided to stay an extra 15 to 20 minutes to let the menacing weather pass.

From the second floor, he watched the storm approach from the southwest, just like so many other systems. The swirling rain began to form about a mile away.

Then the glass doors he was holding onto — with a 100-pound magnet to keep them locked — were suddenly pulled open. Pace was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll, all the while clinging to the handles.

He headed for the hospital's interior for cover. Then he heard a roar. Pace and a co-worker pushed on a door trying to keep it shut, but it kept swaying back and forth.

“I've heard people talk about being in tornadoes and saying it felt like the building was breathing,” Pace said. “It was just like that.”

Outside there was an explosion. Glass shards pelted the building, and Pace heard screams. He helped pull debris off two people outside the emergency room.

———

A high school principal had just finished presiding over graduation when he learned that his school had been destroyed.

Joplin High School held its graduation Sunday afternoon at Missouri Southern State University. Principal Kerry Sachetta was among 75 to 100 people still lingering on campus when the twister hit. They took cover in a university basement.

After the storm passed, Sachetta began receiving text messages warning him about severe damage at the high school. He found the top part of the auditorium gone, the band and music rooms caved in, windows blown out and his office missing its roof. Fifty-year-old trees outside the school had been stripped of their limbs.

Two churches across the street were “completely gone,” and Sachetta was stunned by the condition of the nearby Franklin Technology Center.

“You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like,” he said. “I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw.”

———

Joshua Wohlford and his family were saved by a shelf of toys.

With the tornado bearing down on their trailer, Wohlford, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers sought shelter at a Walmart. They escaped serious injury when a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a tent over them as they huddled on the floor.

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