Crews Rebound from Aftermath of Joplin Tornado

JEMS editor-in-chief visits the site of the wreckage a year later

 

 
 
 

A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P | From the July 2012 Issue | Monday, July 9, 2012

GALLERIES

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This article appears with the July JEMS article, "Crews Rebound from Aftermath of Joplin Tornado."
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The tornado that tore through Joplin Mo., on May 22, 2011, killed 165 people and injured 1,500 others; it decimated thousands of homes, business, churches, nursing homes and St. John’s Mercy Hospital—one of the town’s two hospitals.

It received international attention for weeks. Much of the attention centered on the many lives lost at one of the nursing homes and St. John’s. Many of the media stories focused on heroic civilian efforts, including road crews that cleared the road early with chainsaws and assisted citizens and firefighters in finding and extricating trapped individuals.

But like so many other disasters, the efforts of the local and mutual aid EMS agencies, which found, triaged, treated and transported scores of injured to medical facilities throughout a 12-hour period after the tornado, went largely ignored by the national media. So when Jason Smith, director of Metro Emergency Transport System (METS), and Rusty Tinney, director of the Newton County Ambulance District (NCAD), invited me to meet with the crews and supervisors and speak at a staff picnic on the first anniversary of the tornado, I accepted immediately.

METS and NCAD cover the Joplin area in a unique and cooperative response system (see Last Word, p. 90). Many of the region’s EMS, fire personnel and emergency department nurses work for one or both agencies.

I arrived in Joplin the day after President Barack Obama’s speech at the Joplin Community College and was not at all surprised to learn that the elected officials, fire crews and law enforcement staff were allowed into the facility, but the EMS crews, the ones who would be able to contribute the most if the president or another attendee collapsed during the ceremony, were stationed outside the auditorium at their nine ALS units.

It’s a common story that stinks and will probably only change when an elected official chokes to death on a martini olive and it takes 12 minutes for a crew to get to that person’s obstructed airway.

The community college, METS and NCAD are an important part of the Joplin tornado history because the tornado tore through the center point of their two primary response districts and dozens of the emergency personnel were at the community college instead of Joplin High School, which was not large enough to hold the high school’s graduation, when the tornado tore through the high school, hospital and their homes minutes after graduation ceremonies had concluded.

What follows are photos from that fateful day and my visit. I hope they show you the unimaginable obstacles the METS and NCAD EMS crews faced and how they have rebounded, physically and emotionally, in the year since that horrible day.
 



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First Arrival

NCAD EMS Director Rusty Tinney and the first ambulance that arrived at E. 20th St. & Range Line Road encountered more than a dozen dead bodies and people searching for relatives and friends who had been sucked out of the walk-in freezer at a fast food restaurant. Only four of the 12 people who tried to take refuge in the freezer survived.


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St. John's Mercy Hospital

St. John’s Mercy Hospital, its emergency department and medical helicopter took a direct hit.


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Digging in the Wreckage

EMS crews were confronted by dead bodies and patients who ranged from having minor injuries to pieces of rebar sticking out of their skulls.


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Remains of Joplin High School

The remains of Joplin High School, where hundreds of lives would have been lost had the school been used for its graduation ceremony. The school’s sign was modified and became a lasting symbol of hope for the community.


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Search & Rescue

Members of Missouri Task Force One search-and-rescue team stand by as heavy equipment moves debris from a tornado-damaged Home Depot store.


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Aerial View

This aerial view shows some of the damage done by the tornado that struck the area.


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Treatment Areas

METS & NCAD crews established patient collection and treatment areas near the tornado’s path of destruction—a path that traversed both ambulance service areas.


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Pizza Hut Remains

A.J. Heightman (left) & NCAD Director Rusty Tinney stand at the Pizza Hut one year after the incident. Many of the restaurants and stores have already been rebuilt, but the horrible sights seen by the EMS crews will always remain in their memories.



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Related Topics: Major Incidents, Joplin Tornado, Joplin, from the editor, A.J. Heightman, Jems From the Editor

 
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A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P

JEMS Editor-in-Chief A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P, has a background as an EMS director and EMS operations director. He specializes in MCI management.

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