Site of Missouri men's basketball team's Joplin game holds memories

Saturday, October 29, 2011 | 5:51 p.m. CDT; updated 11:57 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 29, 2011

Thousands experienced the Joplin tornado inside the walls of the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center, where the Missouri men's basketball team opens its season Sunday night. 

It's where, on the day of the tornado, Joplin High School finished its graduation ceremony as the sky grew dark. It was the largest American Red Cross shelter in Joplin where hundreds found a home when their homes were destroyed. The final stitches of the National 9/11 Flag were sewn here to complete the flag's restoration.

The Leggett & Platt Athletic Center, home to the Missouri Southern Lions, is also home to memories of destruction, recovery and healing. 

High school graduation

At 3 p.m. on May 22, the Joplin High School class of 2011 entered the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center to "Pomp and Circumstance," then left to a darkened sky.

Kasey Grant addressed her graduating class saying, “This isn’t the end of our lives. This is the beginning. We’re now moving on to a new part of our lives.”

Standing outside the Leggett & Platte Athletic Center, Trish Norton saw her son alive for the last time.  

Minutes later, the EF5 tornado claimed the life Will Norton, a graduate Grant had been speaking to. Driving home with his father in the passenger seat, Will Norton was sucked through the sunroof of his H3 Hummer. 

The winds tore through Joplin High School, destroying the school. Many graduates returned to ruined homes. 

Moving on suddenly took on a new meaning.

“We’re moving on to regain what we once had,” Grant said.

A Red Cross shelter

Iris Elliott was the first nurse on the scene at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. She entered the gymnasium at 10 p.m. and remembers the dazed looks of those taking shelter. Victims were pouring in by the hundreds, straight from the rubble.

“They didn’t know what to, didn’t know where to go,” Elliott said. “They had nothing but what was on their back.”

The graduation stage was still set up. Boxes of caps and gowns were pushed to the side. What was a place of celebration just hours earlier was now a shelter from the devastation where people were left waiting and wondering.

Elliott, 63, was the only Red Cross nurse at the center for two days and stayed through Thursday. Volunteer medical staff from across the region came to help.

Elliott attended to scrapes and bruises, gashes and burns.

But it was mostly about emotions.

She sat with a wife as she learned her husband had died while taking cover in a Home Depot.

“That was my family that night,” Elliott said.

Completion of the National 9/11 Flag

Joplin resident Joe Schneller helped sew the final stitches of the National 9/11 Flag in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center.

The National 9/11 Flag was recovered from Ground Zero by construction volunteer Charlie Vitchers. To restore the missing pieces, the flag toured the country. It contains a piece from a retired flag of all 50 states.

The tour started in Greensburg, Kan., where on May 27, 2007, an EF5 tornado destroyed the town. The flag stopped in Nashville, where during the flood of 2010, the Cumberland River crested 52 feet into the city. It went to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Jeff Parness, founder of the New York Says Thank You Foundation, was planning to have the final stitches of the National 9/11 Flag sewn at Ground Zero in New York.

It only seemed natural.

But an emotional email from Schneller changed his mind. 

“The flag had to go where it was needed,” Parness said.

On Sept. 11, 2011, Schneller stood in a full Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. The crowd joined hands and sang "God Bless America." He began to cry.

"I felt my nation merge," he said.

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