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UPDATE: Joplin official lowers tornado death toll to 139

Saturday, May 28, 2011 | 9:59 p.m. CDT
Dave Kendall from Carthage raises a flag at a friend's house as he helps clean up a devastated Joplin neighborhood Saturday.

JOPLIN — The numbers look increasingly bleak for families hoping for the best after a monster tornado devastated the town of Joplin. The city has raised the death toll to at least 139, and state officials say 100 people are still missing.

Thousands more people beyond Joplin had been waiting for good news about Will Norton, a teen believed to have been ejected or sucked from his vehicle on the way home from graduation. Several social-networking efforts specifically focused on finding information about Norton.

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But his family said he, too, is among the dead. He was found in a pond near where his truck was located.

"At least we know that he wasn't out there suffering," his aunt Tracey Presslor said, holding a framed portrait of her 18-year-old nephew at a news conference. "Knowing that he was gone right away was really a blessing for us."

Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr said Saturday during a news conference that the death toll rose by three to at least 142, but he later revised that figure down to 139 without elaboration.

Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he could not confirm the city's updated death toll number. He said the state of Missouri currently places the death toll at 126, saying they have no reason to raise that number.

State officials say there are 142 sets of human remains at the morgue that is handling those killed by the storm, and some could be from the same victim.

If the death toll does stand at 139, it would place this year's tornado death toll at 520 and make 2011 the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1950. Until now, the highest recorded death toll by the National Weather Service in a single year was 519 in 1953. There were deadlier storms before 1950, but those counts were based on estimates and not on precise figures.

The tornado — an EF-5 packing 200 mph winds — also injured more than 900 people. Tallying and identifying the dead and the missing has proven a complex, delicate and sometimes confusing exercise for both authorities and loved ones.

Missouri officials said Saturday that the number of people unaccounted for stands at 100. The Missouri Department of Public Safety said that within that number, nine people have been reported dead by their families, but state officials are working to confirm those.

Newton County coroner Mark Bridges said most, if not all, of the people brought to the temporary morgue could be identified this weekend. He described officials there as "making real good progress."

After a mistake immediately after the storm — four people thought they had identified one person's body, only to be wrong — authorities are relying instead on dental records, photos and unique tattoos or piercings, Bridges said. They've also used DNA tests in a handful of cases, he said.

"We learned the hard way at the start," he said. "It's bad for the families."

When asked about calls to open the morgue to all families of the missing, Bridges said doing so would be impractical. He described the site as a number of dark, refrigerated trailers holding body bags.

"There's no place to let them into," he said.

There have been 1,333 preliminary tornado reports in the U.S. through May 27, officials said, while the average number of confirmed tornadoes in a single year during the past decade has been 1,274.

Presslor said Saturday that the family received confirmation of Norton's death late Friday night. She said her nephew's body was not found sooner because there was so much debris in the pond.

Family members had previously told The Associated Press that Norton and his father were still on the road when the storm hit. Mark Norton urged his son to pull over, but the teen's Hummer H3 flipped several times, throwing the young man from the vehicle, likely through the sunroof.

Mark Norton remains in the hospital and is "having a really tough time" after being told his son's body was found, Presslor said.

About a dozen of Norton's classmates stood in the back of the room as she spoke. His funeral arrangements are pending.

Presslor thanked the thousands of people who posted good wishes for Norton on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, and thanked all those who helped look for him. She urged those volunteers to keep looking for other people still missing.

"Please don't give up," she said.


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