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Soldiers from the 117th Engineer Team, Missouri Army National Guard task force, work a search-and-rescue-related mission just hours after a deadly tornado passed through Joplin, Mo., May 22. Some members of the 442nd Fighter Wing volunteered in clean up, while others were directly impacted by the tornado. The 442nd Fighter Wing is an A-10 Thunderbolt II Air Force Reserve unit, Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (U.S. Army photo)
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Gone in 45 seconds

Posted 7/18/2011   Updated 7/18/2011 Email story   Print story


by Tech. Sgt. Kent Kagarise
442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

7/18/2011 - JOPLIN, Mo. -- On May 22, Staff Sgt. Derik Campbell, 442nd Security Forces Squadron, intently stared at the TV in his northern Joplin, Mo. home, when the news coverage displayed a funnel cloud tearing through the heart of his town.

With transformers exploding and lightning flashing on the horizon Sergeant Campbell and his family ran to a neighbor's house where they huddled in the basement and listened to a radio that could not begin to describe nature's wrath just a few miles away.

"When we came up from the basement," Sergeant Campbell said, "we knew that the (local building-surplus) store was gone, but we had no clue just how much damage there was at that time."

Sergeant Campbell works for the Missouri Department of Transportation and knew regardless how little or severe the damage - there would be debris to clear from the roads. His first impression on how devastating the tornado might have been was when he saw a law enforcement vehicle in the middle of the road awkwardly facing the wrong direction with its toggle lights on.

"When I got closer to the police car, I saw the windows were all broken out, and I didn't see the officer," he said. "Further down the road I came upon six tractor-trailors laying on their sides."

Once Sergeant Campbell arrived at his MoDOT facility, supervisors decided the employees' main priority would be to clear the roads in order to allow rescue and aid workers passage through the ravaged city.

"We worked continuously from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. removing tree limbs and just about everything else you can imagine to make the roads passable again," he said. "With the electricity being out, we really couldn't see much, (until the sun came up) except for what was in front of us."

Master Sgt. Amber Ross, 442nd Fighter Wing equal opportunity specialist, was traveling through Joplin several hours after the tornado touched down.

"My family was on our way back from vacation in Arkansas," Sergeant Ross said. "There was an eerie calm among the people as they were searching through the wreckage."

Sergeant Ross said what was most memorable were the glowing little lights of cell phones placed randomly throughout the darkness that lingered as people struggled to connect with loved ones. It was those cell phones that served as beacons for her to give the few supplies she had.

"I had children with me, so I grabbed the cooler and we passed out juice pouches and snacks," Sergeant Ross said. "It wasn't much - but we did our best."

It was clear, Sergeant Ross said, the community was in disarray, and they did not need tourists getting in the way. She decided it would be best for her family to continue traveling through the rainy night.

When the sun finally rose, it found Sergeant Campbell sitting on a hill that he said normally had a limited view - but on this morning the view was very different. St. John's
Regional Medical Center, which usually wasn't visible from this vantage point, was the most prominent figure.

"I could see all around - because everything was gone," he said.

Tech. Sgt. Daniel Landi, 442nd Security Forces Squadron fire team leader, is a Missouri Highway patrolman. As a state trooper, Sergeant Landi assisted Joplin's police department with security and traffic control in the aftermath of the storm that would soon dominate national news sources.

"When I got there, the roads were amazingly clear, but the power was still out so unfortunately security was still an issue because there are people in the world who will take advantage of folks who lost everything," Sergeant Landi said.

Sergeant Campbell has been to Iraq and struggled to find words that could describe the damage that laid before his eyes as he stared at the town that so many family and friends called home.

"Everything was gone -- trees, houses -- just everything," Sergeant Campbell said. "It was three times worse than anything I saw in the combat zone."

Sergeant Landi said the tornado-ravaged area reminded him of photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where only remnants of the previous living conditions remained.

"What struck me as incredible were the signs that were still intact," he said. "I saw a disabled parking sign that was twisted from top to bottom like a corkscrew."

Sergeant Campbell said Joplin's residents were sifting through wreckage in an attempt to salvage what they could from their homes.

"The tornado took 45 seconds to wipe out what people had spent their lives building, and then it moved on leaving their belongings in the front yard," he said.

Since 9/11, Sergeant Landi said, he hadn't seen so many American flags flying to show patriotism in the midst of tragedy.

"If a structure was left standing, it had a flag hanging in front of it," he said. "In some cases we'd see what was left of a house, and on top of the debris there'd be a flag that someone stuck. No place was a bad place for a flag,"

Sergeant Campbell said he struggled with survivor's remorse when he cleaned up his lawn by picking up a few small branches and leaves knowing that on the other side of town there were life-long friends who had lost everything.

"Our house has become a revolving door for friends seeking shelter or just needing a break," he said. "A friend from Kansas City, (Mo.) stayed with us while he helped relocate his mother - who had lost everything."

While Sergeant Landi was in Joplin, he and a fellow state trooper passed through the Campbell's revolving door and enjoyed a warm meal and some solitude away from the turmoil a few short miles away.

"It was nice to feel the arms of the 442nd reaching all the way to Joplin," Sergeant Landi said. "The folks of Joplin are strong people, and I have no doubt they'll bounce back from this and be better than ever."

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