JOPLIN — As they dug through the rubble Monday, Kenneth Powell knew whatever he and a handful of other emergency workers were going to find wasn’t going to be good.
They were assisting an older gentleman who had been using a small excavator to pry away rubble from what had been a Pizza Hut in the heart of downtown Joplin.
They didn’t know it until later, but the man was looking for his daughter, missing since Sunday evening’s monster tornado roared through town, wiping away virtually everything in its path.
“We started cutting into the rubble when we found her leg,” Powell said. “By the way she was pinned, you knew she didn’t make it.”
The pace quickened as Powell and five other Iola firefighters — summoned to Joplin the night before as part of a task force of emergency personnel from southeast Kansas — feverishly but delicately disassembled the pile of rubble.
The process took about an hour. The girl had been an employee at the Joplin Pizza Hut.
Shocked and dazed, the father and mother watched as the girl’s body was pulled from the rubble, one of five fatalities the Iola firefighters helped recover in the storm’s aftermath.
Amid the tragedy came one glimmer of good news: Earlier Monday, they assisted others as an elderly woman was rescued from the debris of her two-story assisted living apartment complex.
The emotion and adrenaline was just part of a day that turned into utter exhaustion by Monday evening.
Powell and Iola firefighters Ryan Sell, Jeremy Ellington, Gary Kimball and Corey Isbell were summoned within hours of Sunday’s tornado as part of Kansas’ Regional Task Force, a consortium of emergency personnel trained in such things as search and recovery. They teamed up with crews from Chanute, Parsons, Pittsburg and other area communities in response to the storm.
“This was the first time the entire task force had been called,” Powell said.
The group arrived in Joplin at 9:30 p.m. Sunday and were deployed to search through a demolished Walmart store. The building consisted of its older main area, and its masonry walls, as well as a more recent addition, made of metal and other lighter materials more susceptible to storm damage.
“The main area wasn’t bad, but the new part was a mess,” Powell said.
Crews struggled to climb on top of the rubble piles in search of storm victims as they made their way through the store.
“That way the debris doesn’t fall on you,” Powell said.
The search came up empty. Powell noted the building already had been searched, with the discovery of three bodies.
THE WALMART search began an overnight period of working for about an hour, then returning to a staging area to wait for their next assignment.
“We were antsy,” Powell recalled. “We knew stuff needed to be done, and we wanted to help.”
Their second assignment was to help pull another storm victim’s body from the rubble of a demolished house. Word was there was a second body, but no others were found.
“It seemed like every search we did took about an hour,” Powell said.
From there, the Iola group was dispatched to an assisted living apartment complex, where others had located an elderly woman, still alive.
Again, it took about an hour as the debris was cleared and the woman rescued — the only successful rescue for the Iola crew.
“She was pretty banged up, but she made it,” Powell said.
After the rescue, the crews were assigned to help search through the rubble in a destroyed neighborhood. As the searches continued and nightfall gave way to daylight, Powell and the others soon found another obstacle.
A second developing storm system was ready to pound southwest Missouri, enough that the search had to be suspended as emergency personnel sought shelter in a nearby bank.
“By then, I think our focus was more on getting some rest and eating,” Powell said. He caught a 15-minute nap, enough to briefly recharge his batteries, before the searches resumed.
THE IOLA CREW was dismissed Monday evening, nearly 20 hours after they arrived in Joplin.
But their work wasn’t finished.
The Iola firefighters routed their return to Iola so they could stop south of Moran, near the sight of a Union Pacific train derailment. They assisted firefighters there for about an hour before returning to the fire station.
But before they could relax, there was another job to be done.
“We had to clean our gear, make sure it was ready in case we got another call,” Powell said.
Powell, who was still on duty until Tuesday morning, settled in a recliner to watch continuing Weather Channel coverage of the Joplin tornado Monday night about 9:30.
“I think I fell asleep as soon as I sat down,” he said with a laugh.
The Joplin storm capped an exhaustive weekend for Powell, who hadn’t slept in earnest since Saturday morning. His planned sleep Saturday night was interrupted about 15 minutes after bedtime as he and others were called to a traffic accident.
“And I couldn’t sleep when we got back from that,” he said.
He was off duty at 7:30 Sunday morning, a day spent with his family.
He began watching news coverage of the storm’s immediate aftermath Sunday evening, sensing that a call for the task force would come as the severity of the storm became evident.
Within minutes his phone rang.
The images on television pale in comparison to seeing the storm’s aftermath in person, said Powell, who had been in Greensburg following that community’s devastating tornado in 2007.
“But Joplin’s damage was so much more widespread,” Powell said. “It really looks like a war zone.”