For one Great Bend man, the tornado that ripped the heart out of Joplin, Mo., Sunday is something he will never forget.
“I personally helped six or seven that were trapped and pinned under debris,” said Dan Curtis, who is past coordinator of Central Kansas Resource Conservation & Development and presently a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil conservationist. “I pulled two bodies out myself. It was good to help, but the tragedy is still being tolled. Many more will show on the death toll.”
Curtis was returning from Army training in Alabama. He was on his way home when he wound up in the Springfield, Mo., area around 10 a.m. Sunday.
But, his plans to spend the night there and run some other errands before returning to Great Bend changed.
“I had been blown off of the road near Springfield which really woke me up,” he said. “Then I got gas and was listening to the radio after a friend in Larned and I were talking about what she saw on the news. I guess I felt like I was in the Area for a reason and drove to Joplin.”
He arrived in Joplin at about 10:30 Sunday. “I was in my reserve uniform.”
When he go there, the Missouri National Guard hadn’t arrived yet, but there were a number of fire departments from all over and the chiefs wanted to start searching block by block. So, in the early morning hours, Curtis and 30-40 firefighters from five or six departments started to search houses and cars one at a time, marking with spray paint the ones they had checked.
They covered eight blocks north and south along the nearly one-mile-wide path of the EF-4 twister. “We probably helped free about 40-50 from the rubble.” Many of the survivors required medical treatment and were taken away in ambulances.
“In all, 19 bodies came from our grid work,” he said. No body bags were available, so the bodies were initially covered with the many items of clothing laying everywhere.
After a long night, the MNG started to arrive. Curtis left abut 7:30 a.m. Monday.
“The only difference between an urban combat war zone in Iraq or Afghanistan and Joplin is Joplin had trees,” Curtis said. “Everything else was the same.”
He saw houses with thick basement walls but without the floors bolted to them. “Emergency preparedness – people really need to start thinking about that,” he said.
Local emergency officials have plenty of information available on how to build safe rooms or new houses that are more secure. We’ve had storms in the past “and you never know when our number will be dialed up again,” he said.