Not only will Deana Fanning remember May 22, 2011 as the day of the Joplin tornado, but this day also marks the date of her wedding anniversary. Thirty-five weeks pregnant at the time, Deana Fanning and her family took cover at a nearby Walmart near the layaway department. She describes several instances that occurred “just in case” a tornado would hit. While some may call these coincidences, Deana says it was God guiding them. This story was written in the weeks following the tornado. Two years later, all but her dad has recovered. He will need another surgery to replace the bolt on his pelvis.
May 22, 2011 started out as a normal day, other than the fact that it was our seven-year wedding anniversary. We woke up, got ready, and went to church. We then went to my twin nephews’ high school graduation at MSSU. When we were leaving MSSU, we heard the tornado sirens, but we didn’t pay much attention to them since they always go off in bad weather. We started to head to Sonic for the slushy we promised Libby for being so good during the graduation. Then, we heard on the radio that there was, in fact, a tornado heading to Dennis Acers and other areas near my parents’ house. I called them in a panic and asked them to meet me at Wal-Mart on Rangeline.
We were hoping to ride out the rain or hail, not thinking a tornado would come this far East into town. We made it into Wal-Mart with just a few minutes to spare. All the employees were showing us where to go in the back of the store. They wanted everyone to go into the layaway department. I can understand their thinking. It had double walls and was supposed to be the safest, right? I took off my shoes because my feet hurt and I was having some contractions. When the layaway room filled up, they suggested we move into the aisle adjacent to layaway.
My husband and I were overcome by a feeling. You may call this a “gut feeling”, “luck”, “coincidence”, but I say it was GOD speaking to us on where to stand. On the way, I had grabbed a pillow off of a shelf to protect Libby “just in case,” not thinking the tornado would really hit. My husband told me to put my shoes back on “just in case.” The employees kept asking us to come in closer to them, but the feeling not to go overcame any sense of logic. We stood in the main aisle of the toy/ electronic department and waited. Although I was terrified, I knew GOD was with me.
Then, the employees from the front that were directing people to the back of the store came running to the back of the store yelling, “It’s coming!” I am sure everyone felt something different. This is what I saw and felt: I heard the rumbling of the store kind of like an earthquake. I heard the sound of the wind, and then I saw the roof start to pop off, starting from the grocery side of the store coming toward us. I saw the wall of the layaway department start to give. I then put my body over my 3-year-old daughter Libby. My husband, my daughter, my father, my mother, my nephew (9) and myself began to call out to GOD and pray. We felt a beam hit us in the back (my dad, my mom, my husband and me); we fell to the ground over the children, protecting them. I felt scared, but in my heart I knew when it was over either way I would be happy. I would either be in heaven or I would continue here. Then I felt the peace of GOD and the winds lifted. Hail then began to hit us for a few seconds. Then I stood up and Libby said to me, “Let’s never do this again. I don’t like it.” I told her neither did I, and that she was doing so well. My whole family stood up except for my dad. I remember looking around and thinking, how am I going to get us out of here, especially being 35 weeks pregnant in heels? I also looked around and I saw that completely around us was an empty space. I was in awe of it. I knew right there GOD saved us.
We were never covered in debris or merchandise or shelving; we were completely shielded from the damage. I felt the pain in my back from the beam but I didn’t think I was seriously hurt at that point. My husband Shaun’s arm was broken, we took off his polo and I ripped it and made a sling out of it. My mom was in pain but able to move. The children, Jordyn and Libby, were perfect. They didn’t get one scratch or bruise. My dad was unable to move. Then it started to rain. Three men tried to get my dad to stand but he just couldn’t do it. With much regret, we had to leave to find help. We tried our cell phones and quickly we realized that the towers were down. I remember my dad giving us a smile and telling us to go and he would be okay as we looked for help.
We started to climb out of the rubble. I looked back into the layaway department and saw that the walls had collapsed. I couldn’t even see the people back there anymore. I wanted to help but all I could think of was getting the kids out of there and getting my dad help. I was conflicted and wanting to help but realized I couldn’t.
My mother said we needed to get me to the hospital. I then realized my baby could be hurt. Everything was in slow motion for me. We started to climb out. Poor Libby, my 3 year old, was in a dress and flip-flops. She never cried and never complained as it rained and she was shivering. She just kept climbing and maneuvering out of the rubble. As we made our way through I kept trying to call 911 and my sister Pam. I had hope that she was still at the college. But I couldn’t get through to anyone. When we got to a point where we had to lift Libby, Mr. Filarski was there to help. He lifted her through the tough parts because we couldn’t do it ourselves. Big thanks to him. I saw so many people helping each other and everyone’s genuine concern for complete strangers. If someone slipped, someone behind them caught them. I saw some teenage boys towards the front that climbed up out of the way so I could walk on the flat part because I was pregnant. My husband kept urging us on. “All we have to do is make it to the car and we can get help.”
When we made it out to the parking lot, we saw complete devastation. People came running into the store looking for their loved ones, asking if I saw teenagers and kids. I told them I saw lots of people climbing out and lots of kids and to be hopeful. I told them not to go in because so many people were making their way out the same way we were. Then we saw the cars. Most of the cars were piled on top of each other. We didn’t find ours at first. We found my parents’ Jeep. It looked like it had been flipped a few times. My mom happened to have blankets in the back. We dusted out the glass and had the kids climb in the back with the blankets since it was raining and they were shivering. When Libby sat in the car she looked at me and said, “Momma, GOD saved us.” I told her yes he did. We stood together and praised GOD for saving us, and we prayed for everyone affected by the tornado. We gave thanks, we prayed to broken hearts and bodies. We prayed that our family was safe. We prayed so many things, but mostly we thanked GOD.
As we looked around I could see the other side of town. Everything was flat. I remember looking at a building far off and being in shock of how far I could see. I saw that all the trees were gone. Everything was leveled. I realize now the building I was looking at was St. John’s hospital; I could see it from Rangline. I then realized that no one would be coming for us; there was so much devastation. It was so quiet, I never heard any emergency vehicles. I felt Jackson (my baby) kick. I was so happy to feel him, to know he was alive in my belly. I don’t know if I was contracting before because of all the chaos, but I sure felt them then. My husband searched first for our car and found it buried under other cars. Then he set out to find a ride to his grandparents’ so we could get help. They only live up the road from Wal-Mart. Shaun came across an amazing couple named Brendon and Jennifer from Kansas. I didn’t get their last name. I remember feeling like they were sent for us. I am usually standoffish with strangers, but with them and their kindness I felt a since of peace and was willing to go with them. Jennifer was four months pregnant and I know she knew what I was going through and my fear. They were so wonderful to take all five of us completely soaked and wounded. They helped us all into their truck. I lay on my mom and as we drove she kept telling me what was outside. She let me know that as we went up 7th street everything looked better and the tornado didn’t come this far east. I was so happy to see that Shaun’s grandparents’ house was in perfect condition and they were safe. They helped me out of the truck and we said our goodbyes to Brendon and Jennifer, and I am pretty sure they went to go help more people. I wish I could thank them all over again. Without them I think I would have had my baby right there in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
We got Shaun’s grandparents’ car and went to our house, which seems silly now, but Libby was shivering so bad I had to get her some dry clothes before we went to the hospitals. We only live a couple of blocks away so I figured I could hold out. I came to this thought that we may not have hospitals, and if we did they would be overloaded with people. I called McCune-Brooks in Carthage. They assured me they were fully functional. So we got dry clothes and dropped them off to Libby. We gave my mom the keys to our truck that was safely at house so she could get her and Jordyn looked at. She wanted to go to St. Johns and figured that when help came that’s where my dad would be. So we separated and went off on our ways. I think the adrenaline must have worn off because my whole body was in pain and I couldn’t control it and began to yell out in pain- something I have never done. My in laws caught up to us and they ended up driving us to the hospital. When we got there I was confused by how empty it was. I figured everyone would be there and it would be chaotic.
I was very lucky to have amazing doctors and nurses, especially the nurses Dee, Novetta, Terrie and others. They never left my side except to either get me something or to switch shifts. I am so thankful for them. They held my hand and kept me calm. I told them I was a nursing student and they explained everything on a level I understood. I couldn’t see the screen but they walked me through everything they saw. Baby Jackson was in perfect condition. They were able to stop my contractions. I was still on medicine every four hours, but they had stopped. They found that I had two fractured ribs and two fractured vertebrae. I could barely move by the time everything was figured out. They tried their very best to keep me comfortable but, being pregnant, there was only so much medicine I could take. They were very good at explaining it all to me. My mother in law stayed with me the whole time as Shaun got his x-ray and temporary cast. I was there for two nights trying to manage my pain and contractions. While in there, Shaun called my family in California. Shaun and my brother in California began tracking down my dad. They called every hospital in the four state area and every hotline they thought that could help. Shaun kept me updated and found all my family members for me.
My poor dad has the worse part of all this. I believe he took most of the impact of the beam. He waited three hours for help. He was unable to walk so they had to strap him to a board. They cut off all his clothes to check for injuries. So he was carried out of Wal-Mart naked. They dropped him four times on the way out, but they made it. They took him to three different hospitals. Finally he ended up at Cox Hospital in Springfield. They found a broken pelvis, which they bolted back together, and injuries to his kidney and pancreas. He had to have multiple blood transfusions (tip: know your blood type). He had surgery on both. He is in rehab in Joplin recovering.
My sister Pam and her children were in her Tahoe. She was in front of her house but couldn’t get out of the car because of the wind. She could see her grandbaby on the front porch with the other grandma. They were all meeting at her house after the graduation to go out to eat. Because my sister and the kids couldn’t get out of the car and get to the house, the other grandma took the baby and ran to the neighbors’. My sister lives right off of 20th near the high school in the direct path of the tornado. She watched as her house was destroyed. The Tahoe was picked up and turned around off the street and they landed on the front lawn with all the widows busted out. They all survived with minor injuries. It was my Sister (Pam), her twin sons (Jessee and Jozef) and both of their girlfriends (Katie and Bre) and her other son (Justin) My sister, who is a single parent, watched everything get destroyed. Bre’s mom and her daughter made it safety out of the neighbor’s house and were completely fine. GOD had his hand on her. I don’t know how she survived it and without any major injuries. It could only be GOD.
Our home, my parent’s, Shaun parents, and Shaun’s grandparent’s homes are all fine. My sister was the only one in our family that lost everything. We all feel so blessed to be alive and that we all have each other. Looking back it seems so unbelievable that we survived the direct path of an F5 tornado. All I can say is it was GOD. I saw the miracle and I feel so thankful.