JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Allene Wallace was on the phone with a friend when dozens of people dressed in red suddenly swarmed her property Thursday in tornado-stricken Joplin.
“Guess what?” Wallace told her friend. “The Kansas City Chiefs are at my house cleaning up my backyard.”
Wallace laughed as she recounted the episode, but many of the more than 130 players, coaches and staff who traveled to the city in four buses Thursday had trouble finding the words to describe their awe at seeing the devastation for the first time.
“It’s overwhelming,” Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. “I was on the bus with all the coaches and players, and it went from a talkative bus to dead silence.”
“The reality really sits in when you come over that hill,” said quarterback Matt Cassel. “You see a 2- by-6-mile radius of pure destruction. It’s like a nuclear bomb went off.”
After arriving at the heavily damaged Joplin High School, the players and personnel fanned out to neighborhoods still strewn with the wreckage of homes and lives. Wearing dust masks and work gloves, they hauled hunks of debris to the street for later pickup.
Sights like a bed frame embedded in a tree stripped of its bark moved many to fresh realization of the tornado’s toll.
“All the guys are walking along and all of a sudden you hear a little squeaky toy or see a doll,” Pioli said, choking up as he tried to finish the sentence.
Players and staff spoke of the team’s determination to remain committed to the city’s recovery.
“Until you actually get here and see the devastation and the amount of loss the people here experienced ... it’s devastating,” linebacker Andy Studebaker said. “We just want to be a part of the restoration.
“One day isn’t going to fix it. One group isn’t going to fix it. Collectively, we need a lot of people locking arms and saying we’re going to own this community. We’re going to lock arms with Joplin and we’re going to try to make a difference down here. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of people, but we can make this place better again.”
In the afternoon, players and coaches signed autographs and posed for pictures with hundreds of area Chiefs fans in the parking lot of a church less than two miles from where they worked in the morning but untouched by the storm’s devastation.
Pioli indicated the Chiefs would return again. He noted that the Hunt family, which owns the Chiefs, has made clear that the organization will remain involved with the recovery effort.
“We’re not even close to being done,” Pioli said. “When there’s a disaster like this, it’s not just about now. We’re a month later and it’s not even being close to being fixed. They’re still clearing the rubble. It’s just important that we can’t forget Joplin.”