Joplin residents share stories of devastation

Monday, May 23, 2011 | 6:09 p.m. CDT; updated 11:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 23, 2011

COLUMBIA — Two people affected by Sunday evening's tornado tell stories of fear, worry and relief after learning about the devastation wreaked in Joplin.

On the ground in Joplin

Travis Kunce, 22, was playing racquetball Sunday evening when he realized the impending storm might be serious. After gathering his things from the locker room of the Olympic Fitness Center, Kunce walked into the lobby to a startling scene.

“All the doors in the building were swinging open,” Kunce said. “Free weights started falling off shelves, and machines started tipping over. I was obviously scared at that point.”

Kunce and a worker ran to the back of the building to a salon.

“There were six of us huddled in the janitors closet,” Kunce said. After about 20 seconds, they could feel the tornado above them, he said.

“The place we were in was concrete, so nothing caved in on us,” Kunce said. After no more than five minutes in the closet, Kunce and the others emerged to find some tiles and insulation on the ground.

“Once we went toward the front of the building where the front desk was, it was all caved in. We couldn’t make it out that way,” Kunce said. After breaking a window and climbing through the hole, the group saw the devastation on the streets.

“The gas station on Connecticut Street was obliterated,” Kunce said. “All of the buildings were gone.”

Kunce’s car was inoperable, so he began walking toward home, near 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue.

“People were crying, laying down in the streets,” Kunce said.

There was a man lying down, shivering and freezing, Kunce said. It was obvious the man's leg was broken, so Kunce gave the man the towel he used during his workout.

“There was another girl, my age or younger. She was just beat down, shivering. Everyone was soaking wet,” Kunce said.

When he got back to his home in Docks Apartments, he found nothing but rubble.

“I don’t know how my parents even survived,” Kunce said. They crawled into a bathroom and closed the door, and then the wall and ceiling were falling in on them, he said.

Cars were piled on top of one another, and Kunce said they have not been able to locate his mother's car.

Kunce said he is staying with a friend in Duenweg, east of the affected area.

“We’re not sure what to do,” Kunce said. “A lot of people’s lives changed forever today, and I think it’s safe to say a lot of people are lost right now.”

Concern for family back home

Loyola student Sidra Zaidi received a text from a friend Sunday evening asking if her family was safe. She shrugged it off, remembering all of those past tornado sirens that amounted to nothing.

After multiple attempts, the Joplin native finally got a hold of her dad.

“He sounded panicked. He was just kind of talking faster,” Sidra Zaidi said. Her father, Navid Zaidi, said that St. John’s Regional Medical Center was badly damaged along with the high school, which is across the street from her home.

“I turned the weather channel on, and they were standing in front of the hospital. And I couldn’t recognize what it was. I don’t recognize anything in Joplin anymore,” Sidra Zaidi said. “I started sobbing uncontrollably. I thought my family must be dead.”

After another hour, she reached her mother, Tabassum Saba. She was upstairs when the power went out, which led her to go downstairs, Sidra Zaidi said.

“If the power hadn’t gone out, my mom would be dead,” Sidra Zaidi said.

The tornado ripped the third story, where her mom was, clean off of the house about a minute later, Sidra Zaidi said.

“The top level’s gone. The back wall is gone. The basement is exposed,” Sidra Zaidi said.

Her family is staying with an uncle in his small house. “There were probably 15 people staying there last night,” Sidra Zaidi said.

“We’ve had really bad tornadoes in the past, but they’ve always been really rural. I am absolutely shocked this is happening,” Sidra Zaidi said.

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