JOPLIN, Mo. –
It was one hour after the nation’s deadliest tornado in six decades touched down and Bruce Vonder Haar had to see for himself if it was all true.
The then-Joplin High School softball coach and now assistant athletic director was seven miles north of town, near the airport, and safe. But like everyone in the region, his cell phone couldn't call out. Power and communication were spotty. Unconfirmed reports of death and destruction were running rampant.
He was being bombarded with text messages from out-of-town loved ones, watching far and wide from their televisions. One text read that the city’s hospital, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, was gutted. The local Home Depot was demolished. And then this from a pal in Pennsylvania: “You lost your high school.”
Vonder Haar hopped into his 1998 Toyota Camry and drove straight through the war zone.
“Me and about a thousand others,” he said. “I couldn’t get anywhere. There was chaos and traffic and downed trees and debris everywhere. I finally just had to park my car about a mile-and-a-half from the high school and I started to run toward it.”
No distance runner, the 40-year-old jogged on adrenaline and fear alone.
“It was a 10-minute window of my life I’ll never forget. I saw things I never imagined,” he said. “There were homes destroyed in every direction. Cars turned over. People everywhere, rummaging through piles of rubble looking for possessions and who knows what else.”
Vonder Haar began to think about all his students and co-workers and friends. How many of them were in the line of this horrific EF-5 twister - the strongest rating possible - that spread three-quarters of a mile wide and 22 miles long? How many were blasted by the tornado that took 161 lives, injured more than 900 others and destroyed at least 8,000 homes, 18,000 cars and 450 businesses?
His pace quickened. His emotions heightened.
“The entire run was absolutely surreal,” he said. “It was like I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing, what was happening.”
When he finally arrived at 20th and Indiana streets, ground zero of the storm where the high school had stood for more than 50 years, Vonder Haar's eyes glazed over. He blinked hard several times.
“The destruction was so great to the school, I didn’t even know what I was looking at,” he said. “I kept looking back and forth, back and around to see if I was actually at the right spot.”
At that moment, Vonder Haar had one predominant thought, one undoubtedly shared by not only the more than 2,200 students and faculty, but the 50,000 residents of a city whose motto is “Proud of our past. … Shaping our future.”
“I thought, ‘Now what?’” Vonder Haar said. “What do we do now? Where can we possibly go from here?”
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tornado, this is a story of how the student-athletes and faculty of Joplin High School worked their way swiftly to a spot few fathomed on that horrific day: A place of hope, resiliency and normalcy.
Led by a student body's spirit, an administration's push, a community's work ethic and the injection of prep sports, the Eagles not only landed on solid ground but they dared to take flight once more.
It didn't hurt to have the support of a compassionate nation.
“It’s unbelievable that we’ve made it this far,” Joplin senior softball and track standout Mariah Sanders
said. “But it’s believable because of all the help we had.”
An ambitious start date of Aug. 17 for school, made by Joplin Superintendent of Schools C.J. Huff just two days after the tornado, set the pace for workers, the community and the students to follow.
A new temporary and innovative 90,000 square foot campus for upperclassmen – at the local Northpark Mall no less – was constructed by a group of Kansas City architects in 84 days to meet the start date. New MacBook laptops were donated by the United Arab Emirates and loaned to each student.
Video by Todd Shurtleff/Edited by Bryce Escobar. Footage courtesy of Joplin Schools/Danny Craven.
“At first I thought it was a weird concept – at a mall – and I didn’t think it had a chance to be done in time,” said senior three-sport athlete Kellie Stringer. “But it turned out to be an awesome facility, a great place to learn and grow.”
The athletic fields – though none remained on campus – gave students a place to escape, unwind and unfurl passion.
Through the efforts of athletic director Jeff Starkweather and Vonder Haar and the coaching staffs, the Eagles fielded teams in all 20 sports and played a regular schedule, a minor miracle considering the logistical roadblocks and hurdles.
“Sports brought back a sense of home for me, a place we all used to be,” senior track sprinter and football player Martez Wilson said. “We could just forget about our traumatic experiences and go somewhere to put your mind and heart into something else to work on.”
The tornado ripped the high school apart, but the Eagles say they have bonded closer, reached beyond their limits and created a school year they will cherish.
“Before you might see someone in the halls and not say anything,” Joplin junior football and wrestling standout Danny Drouin said. “Now you ask how they’re doing and what is going on in their life. ... We may have lost our school and lost our facilities, but we didn’t lose our heart or desire to succeed.”
They've certainly had their share of attention. The football team played a benefit game at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs. The softball and baseball teams threw out first pitches at Busch Stadium, home of the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. A recent prom was sponsored by pop star Katy Perry.
And now today - the ultimate - President Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address at Joplin’s graduation at Missouri Southern State University's Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.
“How many schools can say that?” Wilson asked rhetorically.
At the graduation, a tribute is scheduled for two Joplin High students who perished in the tornado, senior Will Norton and freshman Lantz Hare. Norton, who had just graduated an hour before the tornado, was an accomplished film student who had secured a scholarship to a film school in Southern California. He was considered by many around campus as the school's "most likely to succeed."
The campus clearly had to overcome more than shattered buildings. A statement released from the White House said in part that “Joplin's resilience and selflessness in the face of tragedy continues to inspire our nation.”On Tuesday, more than 5,000 residents and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon are expected to break ground on a new $90-million state-of-the-art high school where rubble from the demolished school now sits. The opening of that school is scheduled for August, 2014.
“(Tuesday) will be a very emotional day,” Starkweather said. “It’s been a very long year but a remarkable one.”
One, Wilson said, that has actually uplifted his life.
“I try to live by the saying that God is going to throw obstacles in your way but it’s up to you to overcome them,” he said. “I feel like that’s what we’ve done. We’ve overcome this giant obstacle and now we’re stronger than ever.”
The stories about the storm itself, the panicked aftermath and the recovery over the next 12 months all differ greatly. But there are common themes in each.
Here are eight stories of strength from the Joplin athletic department.