It was a peaceful Sunday afternoon at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo. Nancy Nichols, an emergency room secretary, heard tornado sirens. But, in a Midwestern spring, the sirens are not all that unusual, and, before May 22, many people had grown a bit blase' about the warnings.
Nichols walked outside into sunshine. She took a call from her 10-year-old daughter, Bailey, who is afraid of storms.
"I told her to pop in a movie and everything will be fine," Nichols said. "It was no big deal."
When the intercom called to "prepare for condition grey" — code for a weather emergency — she and other ER employees closed doors and took steps according to plan. Then the intercom voice, much more excited, shouted, "execute condition grey" — code for an imminent weather emergency.
Nichols said a nurse rushed from the front door, screaming, "It's like a freight train, and it's coming right at us!"
Nichols said, "I looked up to see a black sky. We dove under a desk. I could feel a gush of air pressure. I grabbed a trash can, and the air pulled it away. Things were flying everywhere, glass was breaking."
Then there was darkness inside the ER, water pouring in from somewhere and malfunctioning phones ringing. Emerging from their shock, Nichols said coworkers began moving patients and visitors into an adjoining room. They used cell phones for light.
"We had maybe 75 people in there. How we treated them is a blur. I have no memory of time, but I turned and saw a large man in a white shirt (a firefighter). I began to cry," she said. "He grabbed my face and said, 'You have to do this work.' I said, 'Tell me what you need.'"
Nichols and her coworkers began moving their patients in single file through three inches of water and debris to a triage center outside in the middle of McClelland Boulevard. It was raining hard. "I said, 'Please God, stop the rain. This isn't over,'" she said.
Nichols went back inside many times for blankets, towels, splints, anything to help. She was heartened by the arrival of off-duty coworkers, the increasing buzz of activity in the triage area and the flashing lights of ambulances to transport patients to other care facilities.
"When they all showed up, I knew we'd finally be okay," she said. Standing for a moment, she cried a second time.
"I finally thought to look around," Nichols said. "The doctor's building across the street was gone. So was the convenience store. I could see forever. All the houses and trees were gone. The world was like a giant dump — piles of rubbish everywhere."
She worried about her husband, Glen, and their two children, living on the north end of town, until a firefighter friend told her their neighborhood was fine. (Meanwhile, a friend had seen Nichols on a live TV report and told her husband she had survived.)
Shortly before midnight, a supervisor told her to go home and arranged for a ride. Nichols didn't bother looking for her van in a parking lot where vehicle was heaped on vehicle. Finally home, soaked and exhausted, she cried again.
Glen Nichols found her mangled van two days later. That same day, Nancy Nichols reported to work at Memorial Hall downtown, where St. John's established an emergency care center. "I do whatever they need. They certainly don't need a secretary right now," she said.
What Joplin needs is St. John's, she said, and she wants to remain a part of it. On one of her trips back into the hospital the night of the tornado, she had noticed a framed photograph, floating in water, of the St. John's helicopter hovering next to the hospital. She grabbed it.
Said Nichols, "I want to mount that on the wall of our new hospital."
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