JOPLIN, Mo. — On May 22, 2011, everything changed for one Midwest city. The EF5 tornado that struck Joplin was the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history, killing 162 people, displacing 9200 residents and destroying 25% of the town.
The traumatic experience affected everyone in the area in some way, but each person has a unique story of what they went through that fateful Sunday afternoon. This is inside the world of: tornado survivors.
Local photographer Cecil Weise-Cornish was 17 when the tornado hit. He was working at frozen yogurt shop Cherry Berry when customers began mentioning a tornado warning.
Outside, the shop’s furniture was blowing around intensely so he went outside to bring it in.
“I look around the building and I just see a big, black wall coming. I’m like, ‘Oh this is different… We need to get inside and get people safe,'” Weise-Cornish recalls.
The tornado sirens began to go off. Weise-Cornish started to panic. But then something clicked.
“Something took over me… I started yelling at people to get in bathrooms,” he said.
He kept each family together as he got them to a safe place. Weise-Cornish and his coworkers went into the back room and held items over their heads.
“We started hearing this like train siren noise. But it was like a demon… I was so scared. I just remember praying really loud… As the tornado passed, it started cracking the wall and I saw outside,” he said.
He recalls seeing the back end of a diesel and a tree fly by. He and his coworkers linked arms.
“The concrete of the ground started cracking… ‘It’s not a tornado, it’s the end of the world… It’s the rapture,'” he thought in that moment.
He let go of his coworkers with the intention of being taken away by the tornado. He remembers floating off the ground a bit.
“I almost let it take me,” said Weise-Cornish.
“I saw wires and furniture and the yogurt machines were everywhere and blown open… It looked like a war zone. As I kept looking, I saw two black figures… They were like shadow people and they were like eight feet tall,” he continued.
The figures telepathically said something to Weise-Cornish that he’ll never forget.
“‘Don’t go out the front of this building, go out the side. If you go out the front, lives will be lost. Go out the side or people will be in danger,'” they told him.
Weise-Cornish knew what he had to do. He tackled down both bathroom doors and let the families out of the side of the building.
As he looked around outside, he saw that everything was destroyed. A woman picked up Weise-Cornish and one of his coworkers in her car. He says she was like a “guardian angel.”
They headed to the Hampshire Terrace apartments to find Weise-Cornish’s parents. A man checking where vehicles were going told them those apartments were destroyed. Weise-Cornish was convinced his parents were dead.
They changed direction and the woman got Weise-Cornish and his coworker as close as she could to the hospital, letting them walk the rest of the way. He’ll always remember the things he saw on that walk.
“‘God, why have you done this to me,'” Weise-Cornish heard a bloodied woman proclaim.
“‘He didn’t do this, a tornado did,'” he yelled back in response.
He finally received a text from his mom saying that she was safe. Relief.
Weise-Cornish continued walking to meet with his coworker’s family. It was raining. He saw people on the top floor of Mercy hospital screaming for help to get down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman jump.
Now, Weise-Cornish has PTSD. He avoids watching disaster-related media and is triggered by certain smells that remind him of the tornado. Sometimes when it’s storming, he hears ambulances.
“Life is okay. Dealing with it on a daily basis is hard,” he said.
Sonya and Rick Terry
Sonya and Rick Terry were at home with their son Brandon when the storm rolled in.
Something wasn’t right. The power went off. They went out to the front porch and saw cars speeding down the road. They could see houses and trees being torn up in the distance.
“We could see the tornado, we didn’t know what it was. We couldn’t see past it. It was so wide that you couldn’t see left or right around it,” said Rick.
As the tornado sirens went off, the three of them ran back inside to a small bathroom in the middle of the house.
“I’ll never forget Brandon praying like crazy. We could hear things flying and breaking… It was scary,” said Sonya.
The storm finally passed. They walked out of the bathroom to see the rest of their home, which had been passed down for generations, completely destroyed.
The bathroom was the only thing untouched.
“Everything we’d worked for our whole life was gone. Everything,” said Rick.
But they no longer cared about anything in their home. They were most concerned about finding out if their children and grandchildren were safe.
“That was the biggest thing… Just trying to get a hold of everybody and make sure everybody was okay, that was the most horrible feeling in the world,” said Rick.
They went to find their son Chad who lived just down the road. They couldn’t find his house — the area around them was unrecognizable.
Finally, by 2 a.m. the next day, they had accounted for all their family members.
“The house didn’t mean anything, nothing inside meant anything… Everybody’s alive. And that was it. That’s all that mattered,” he said.
In the next few days, numerous people helped the Terrys search through the rubble that was their home and move debris to the street.
Sonya owned Christmas ornaments that had her kids’ and grandkids’ names on them. She thought they were gone forever. Deep below the destruction, they were found. Only a few were damaged.
“She cried. We didn’t have anything. They found these things that meant the world to her,” Rick recalls.
They had no clothes or personal items. People began giving them clothes, toothbrushes and more to get them by.
“We were sad because it was her grandma’s house, sad we lost everything, but what helped us the most was all the family and people we didn’t know helping us dig through this stuff when it was nasty weather. They were just lined up to help us. It made us cry,” said Rick.
“We would get up every morning, and it would be pouring down rain, and we’d go and try to find stuff,” he continued.
A couple days after the disaster, the Terrys were using a trailer to move debris. Rick was trying to park it in front of their home. Traffic was bumper to bumper.
“A car got right in front of me and stopped, another one behind. I thought, ‘What are you guys doing? I’ve got to get this trailer in position.’ They got out, had on gloves,” said Rick.
“‘You live here?'” they asked. “‘We’ve come to help you.‘”
With only a few days to get debris moved to the curb to be picked up, it was down to the wire. More and more people came to help, also bringing the Terrys meals from local restaurants.
“It was touching,” said Sonya.
“The amount of people that would just show up. You’d ask for their name and they’d just grin at you and keep working,” said Rick.
During this time, the Terrys also had to account for everything they owned for insurance purposes. They stayed with Sonya’s brother before moving into an apartment. Now, they reside in another home of their own.
They will never forget the people who helped them through this horrendous experience.