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I Was There: the Joplin Tornado

Missouri Staff Sergeant Michael Byers, 203rd Engineer Battalion, 35th Engineer Brigade, has seen his share of combat, but nothing prepared him for the day in 2011 when he saved a man impaled on a steel beam after a tornado ripped through his hometown.
SSG Michael Byers stands in the middle of the damage at the site of Joplin High School, which was caused by the 2011 tornado. The new high school (seen in the background) is scheduled to open by August 2014. Photo by Mark Neuenschwander
SSG Michael Byers stands in the middle of the damage at the site of Joplin High School, which was caused by the 2011 tornado. The new high school (seen in the background) is scheduled to open by August 2014. Photo by Mark Neuenschwander

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In 2011, a tornado rated EF5 (the most severe) struck Joplin, MO, killing 161 people, making it one of the deadliest twisters in the U.S. since officials began keeping records. The tornado was nearly a mile wide at one point, with winds peaking at close to 250 mph.  Acres of the town were flattened, and 7,500 dwellings were destroyed. More than 9,200 people were displaced. Guard troops were immediate responders, rescuing people, providing first aid and restoring order. Then they spent almost 20 months after the disaster rebuilding their city. The Guard oversaw the federal debris removal program, which cleared more than 1.5 million cubic yards of debris by late 2011 alone. The Guard also assisted the state with a program that created 1,400 temporary jobs to aid in the cleanup. Staff Sergeant Michael Byers was one of the first responders.  

On May 22, 2011, my cousin Brian Hamlet, my wife and I, my sister, and her [now husband] were getting ready for a dinner at a restaurant in Joplin. We were under a tornado warning, though, so we weren’t going to leave the baby sitter. Instead, we watched the TV to get an idea of where the tornado was. 

We do get a lot of warnings where we are. The tornadoes usually travel up the I-44 corridor here, so we were thinking, “They never hit; why did this have to happen when we’re trying to go out to dinner?” But when we saw transformers blowing up all across the city on live TV, instantly my heart dropped. 

Seeing the tornado’s path, I knew it hit our armory. As the supply sergeant, the idea of weapons scattered across Joplin came to my mind, so I immediately grabbed my uniform, bandages—whatever I could—as I rushed out the door. 

I asked my cousin to go with me, and we drove as fast and as far as we could. The tornado had ripped a large path between my home north of town and the armory on the south side of town. Huge trees were down every few feet. And as we were driving, the tornado was still ripping through Joplin, so you could see the black storm raging in the distance.

We got to where the tornado had been and got out of the truck, walking. Everything was leveled. There was nothing. The scene was surreal—like a movie set. Not a tree, not a house standing for half a mile. 

It was somehow noisy and calm at the same time. People were climbing out of shelters. Transformers kept blowing up. Alarms were going off as people climbed out of cars thrown hundreds of feet through the air. One house was completely on fire near a gas pipe that was spewing out something we thought could easily explode. We ran down to the worst-hit area, jumping over power lines and avoiding the gas lines that were spraying everywhere. Everybody in that area was under rubble, screaming and moaning. 

That’s where we found Mark Lindquist. He had been working at a group home, caring for three boys with Down syndrome. We came across the boys first. One we couldn’t help, but we gave aid to the other two. Lindquist was toward the top of a big, shaky pile of rubble with a piece of metal like a steel guardrail impaled through his back. He had landed on it, broken bones galore and lost a large amount of blood. He had suffered a head injury and was muttering the same moan over and over again, moving on the piece of metal he couldn’t get off of.

Impaled like that, he didn’t have much blood left, and the only way to be able to treat him was to get him off of the rubble. So we had to muscle him—he’s a big guy—off of the metal, then took off our shirts and used them to try to stop the bleeding. Eventually, we just had to drag him onto the ground and work on him. 

I had gone through first-aid training during mobilization on two different tours, to Afghanistan and Iraq. But when you actually have to use it, it really makes you want to pay attention more when those classes are going on. It’s definitely something I stress with my guys now. 

After we had given him aid, eventually we got to that moment where we expected that ambulances and firetrucks would show up to take these people to safety. In reality, there was no help coming. So I left the mass casualty staging area we had set up and ran about four blocks to a major street, yelling for some guys with pickup trucks to get down there and help us out. We cleared the way, but some of them still damaged their trucks driving over huge downed telephone poles and all kinds of debris. 

On my first tour in Iraq, I did primarily combat missions—security, escorting, that type of stuff. Eventually you get used to the death and destruction in combat, and learn to react to certain situations. But this was a lot worse than what I’d seen in combat, because we didn’t have a medevac helicopter to call. We didn’t have lifesaving equipment on us. We didn’t just hold the wound and yell for help to come. You’re more prepared for it on a deployment. This, on the other hand, was a lot of casualties, and I didn’t have a platoon of people to help me.

Lindquist looked like the worst casualty—he was visually out of blood, gray in color. So he went out on the first truck we were able to get in. An older lady who was by Lindquist, the two boys with Down syndrome, another lady with a broken arm, and one or two other folks also got into the trucks that came. We had a system going—civilians were getting their trucks there, hauling people out, while we continued to look through debris for people. 

Eventually, firetrucks and ambulances showed up, so we headed to the armory, where we shifted into cleanup mode. 

By the time we arrived, it was almost dark. The building had taken some pretty significant roof damage, with water standing in it. But the building was located right on the edge of the real devastation (pretty much right across the street), so it missed some of the main force of the tornado. The unit was still running operations out of it, even with part of the roof missing. 

I thought I’d be the only one to show up at the armory in the middle of the night, but I got there and there were already people working. Everybody was rolling up their sleeves for the huge engineer mission of getting the streets cleared.

There were a lot of Soldiers whose houses were hit by the tornado. Everybody had so much work to do, and I didn’t really even stop to notice the fact that I’d helped people, because everybody was helping people. The doctors were doing so much in the hospital, with the chaos of having these thousands of people showing up. And I’m from this community, so I know that everybody had a big story, because they were helping. I felt for those people that I’d pulled out, and I was hoping that I made an impact on their lives, but I didn’t really feel like I’d done anything that any other Soldier wouldn’t have done in my position. 

There was a lot of confusion on what we were going to do from there, but eventually leadership put out that we were moving to a neighboring armory at Carthage, OK. 

I finally got home that night about 4 a.m., hoping to get an hour or two of rest before we started working on the cleanup mission at Joplin, but I couldn’t sleep. My adrenaline was still too high. When you’re exhausted, and you’ve been working through things like that, you’re still hyper-vigilant. So I went back to Carthage to get back to work. I was kind of having the same feeling as the whole rest of the city of Joplin—you just wanted to pitch in. 

Later, after the mission was over, it was heavy on my cousin’s and my heart to go to the hospital to check on the two boys that we had pulled out. We found out they didn’t make it, but we saw Lindquist in the ICU—when he was still not supposed to live. Eventually, he surprised [us] all and made it.

For the next few months, as the cleanup continued, I went back to my job as a supply sergeant getting food and water to the troops, working on basic supply functions.

That day, my cousin Brian got a taste of what we do in the Guard. So now he’s a 33-year-old private first class in my unit. And it turned out to be lucky we made that choice to stay home with the baby sitter, because the restaurant that we would’ve gone to got hit directly, and people got killed there.

Looking back on the mission, I just feel like I did my job. I did help people that day, but to me I just did what I was brought up to do by my father, and what I was taught to do by my unit and my commanders. I did what was asked of me.

Editor’s note: After administering lifesaving first aid, Byers and Hamlet sent Lindquist to the hospital but in the confusion didn’t find him again for three days. Lindquist was in a coma for seven weeks following the tornado, with only a 2 percent chance of living, but more than three years later, he is alive with limited mobility of his arm. For his actions following the Joplin tornado, Byers received the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for valor in a noncombat situation.

 Watch the Missouri Guard’s video about its tornado relief efforts below.