Joplin Tornado: Surviving the Storm, Living in the Aftermath

By: Bonney Bowman Email
By: Bonney Bowman Email

May 22nd, 2011 is the one year anniversary of one of our nation's deadliest tornadoes.

An EF-5 slammed into Joplin, Missouri at 5:41 PM, and when it was over, a third of the town was destroyed and more than 150 people were dead.

Two of our staff members lived through this life-changing event.

Bonney Bowman and Matt Santamaria were working together at the NBC affiliate in Joplin.

They were both at work when the tornado went through.

This is their first-person account of surviving the storm, then living with its aftermath.

Bonney: "The siren sounded about 20 minutes before the actual tornado hit and I remember looking out the windows in our newsroom and laughing because the sun was setting and there were a few clouds in the sky but nothing to indicate what was coming."

Matt: "Looking back it was so stupid I just went out there and kind of followed the funnel cloud around. Just a very distinctive freight train type noise kind of blew over and we kind of got an undercut wind and that was that. We went inside after that but still even at that point it didn't sink in even close to the magnitude of what was going on."

Bonney: "The next thing I know, Matt comes running in saying there's a tornado on the ground. I didn't believe him at first, but then we popped up the picture from our tower cam and there is was. A massive funnel was moving through the city and it was doing so much damage."

Matt: "We went into the conference room. We were kind of huddled up in there, still not taking it that seriously."

Bonney: "I was trying to get everyone into the conference room. It was a central room with heavy table. I guess I thought it might protect us if the walls collapsed but everyone was running around and everyone was yelling and the only way to describe the next few minutes is chaos."

Matt: "Even going under the table, you didn't think that something was imminent, you didn't think that your life was in danger which, if you really think about it I mean Walmart, Home Depot, these huge structures. We very much were in danger."

Bonney: "I realized right away how much danger we were in. I knew if that thing hit us, we probably wouldn't survive so i took a second to email my parents who were overseas. I said something like, we have a major tornado on the ground, just in case, I love you."

Matt: "When you live in tornado alley your whole life you just don't take that stuff seriously. It's sad but that's the reality."

Bonney: "After a couple minutes, people started to calm down. We realized we weren't going to get hit. But the I started to wonder what was going on in the city, was it as bad as it had looked?"

Matt: "I got some sort of information the threat was over. I had actually started to go back to work on my sportscast for the night which, in retrospect is just crazy, like we're going to cover sports on a night like that."

Bonney: "We waited a few minutes to make sure the tornado wasn't in our area any more, and we started gearing up to go cover the damage. I insisted everyone go out in pairs, because we didn't know how bad it was and I didn't want anyone getting stuck in a dangerous situation when they were all alone."

Matt: "We were on I-44 duty, we were supposed to make it because apparently there were trucks overturned and things like that and obviously in the aftermath we never even got close to getting over there because there were traffic jams and trees and things all over the place."

Bonney: "I remember as I was driving to my assigned spot near St. John's Hospital, clinging very fervently to a hope it wouldn't be as bad as it had looked, that maybe things would be ok, but when we turned the corner and saw the devastation...it was so much worse than we had thought it could be."

Matt: "When we got in the car and we started driving and we drove right into the epicenter of it and it started with trees down and then a roof was collapsed and then just the utter destruction."

Bonney: "As we were driving towards St. John's Hospital, the destruction got worse and worse, and when I saw the hospital and the total devastation around it, it was devastating. They were wheeling injured people across the street into the parking lot of a gas station that was no longer there. They were doing triage in the parking lot under the ER overhang. A lot of people were hurt, and people and vehicles were coming from every direction, bringing more victims."

Matt: "You see things on CNN, Tuscaloosa had just happened like a month before and they use adjectives and they use words to describe the scenes and I remember war zone. I've never been in a war zone, I've never been in the Army, never been in the Navy, never been in the Air Force, but it just sunk in so much. It looked like an utter war zone and it was something that will probably be ingrained in my mind for the rest of my life."

Bonney: "I don't know why it didn't hit me sooner, but suddenly I realized I didn't know if my house had been hit or if my pets were alive. I didn't know for more than 2 hours, and when we turned the corner onto my street and I saw my house was still standing, I just started sobbing with relief. I was shaking so hard and in that moment I was more thankful than I have ever been. I counted later, and the actual tornado missed me by ten houses. Ten houses down from me everything was gone."

Matt: "In a way I felt so guilty in terms of how lucky I really was. I didn't lose my apartment, I didn't lose my wife, I didn't lose my child and so many people did."

Bonney: "Nine people in our newsroom lost everything. One of our producers lost his leg because he was so badly hurt. In total, more than 8,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed and more than 160 people lost their lives."

Matt: "That was so emotionally taxing, the first week, two weeks, three weeks after because there were so many stories. The heroic stories, the sad stories, the acts of kindness. It was just so emotionally overwhelming."

Bonney: "I felt like I couldn't get away from it. I drove through it to and from work, I covered it every day, and I went home to a damaged house with no power for two weeks. There was no down time, no recovery time. There are some very stark images, things I wish I hadn't seen but things I will never, ever forget."

Matt: "It regained my faith in humanity because there was so much good that came out of it and you think you're a good person and you think you knew right from wrong but there are so many people that went so far above and beyond what they had to do."

Bonney: "It is the clearest demonstration of our capacity to care for each other I've ever witnessed and even now when I think about it, May 22nd, 2011 was the worst day of my life, but my faith in our inherent humanity is unshakable.

On Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012, the city of Joplin is planning a unity walk and memorial service to remember those who died and look back over this difficult year.

Matt and Bonney are in Joplin and will have complete coverage off all the events.


Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
powered by Disqus
KOLN-TV Call: (402) 467-4321 Toll-free: 1-800-475-1011 840 North 40th Lincoln, NE 68503 Email: info@1011now.com KGIN-TV Call: (308) 382-6100 123 N Locust Street Grand Island, NE 68802 Email: kgin@1011now.com KSNB-TV Toll free 888-475-1011 123 N. Locust St. Grand Island, NE 68802 Email : ksnb@1011now.com
Copyright © 2002-2014 - Designed by Gray Digital Media - Powered by Clickability 152149245 - 1011now.com/a?a=152149245
Gray Television, Inc.