Roger Cornish, 55, was forever changed by the Joplin tornado. Roger gives us an account of his efforts to save others. Although he is reluctant to take credit for it, Roger is one of many examples of Joplin’s citizens performing heroic acts to help strangers.
The day started like just like a normal day. My wife went to work [at St. Johns] early that day. I got up and watched a little TV and was watching the weather reports out of Kansas and it kind of got my attention. The weather out in Kansas was starting to build some strength.
As the day went on, my son had to go to work he worked at a yogurt shop. He left about twenty minutes to 3. My wife got home about 3:30pm and I cooked her a late lunch. After she ate she was just sitting on the couch relaxing. I reminded her that [our son] wanted her to come and help him to fill out his W2 form at Cherry Berry. She said ‘well he’s a straight A student; he should know how to do that.’ I reminded her that we were young at one time and did she remember the first one that she filled out. At this time it was about 4:30pm, my wife went to Cherry Berry and helped him with his W2 form.
I was sitting at home when my brother, who’s a truck driver, called me. We were both listening to the weather reports out of Springfield. They were talking about Airport Drive, Galena, Webb City, but my brother said ‘hey isn’t that close to you.’ And about that time the sirens started to go off. I said yeah, ‘that’s pretty close to me. Well, I better let you off the phone.’
The apartments that we lived at were next to a grocery store, Dillon’s. I ran outside and I looked to the first apartment next to us and there were two gentlemen standing on a balcony upstairs and I could see a black cloud forming. I said ‘hey guys you can’t see this?’ They just kind of looked at me like ‘whatever’.
So I turned and looked to the south and there was some children playing in a yard and I’m the last person to scream or holler at somebody’s children but I knew they shouldn’t be outside. So I went over there and told them to get inside and they took off.
I still was standing there and some people in the center apartments came running out hollering saying, ‘we’re from Arizona and California—where do we go?’ I said ‘there’s nowhere to go around here so if you’re up stairs get down-stairs. If somebody won’t let you in, get under the stairwells.’
I ran back over to where I was at and it started raining. The rain was like pancake-sized raindrops. Then it got to hailing; I’d say a little larger than golf balls. There were some shaped like Saturn with the rings around it. I thought to myself, ‘you might want to take shelter too.’
The neighbors that lived across the hall from us were getting ready for a barbeque and I told them to keep an eye on the weather. I went in to the apartment and all I knew was, ‘here it comes, here it comes.’
For some reason I was going to look out the west window but then I thought I’m going to go to the bedroom and crack a window. The last thing I heard was the door slam and then the glass went through the door, into the wood frame over into the laundry room.
I got to my feet somehow and I was trying to find something to put over my head. Trying to get some towels or something over my head. My mother passed away in 1999 and I could hear this noise over the tremendous noise of the storm.-I kept hearing ‘lay down son, lay down’. So I laid down and I leaned up against the door because the door kept trying to come open and a 2×4 came through the wall. And I think the 2×4 would have hit me if I hadn’t laid down. Then I laid there and prayed and thought about my mom and my family. It lasted probably 3 or 4 minutes at the most. It sounded like forever to me.
I knew that I could get back to my feet and I walked down the hallway and I looked back at the apartments and the top floor was gone. Where the hallway would have been had fell in and part of the stairwell had fell in too. So I pushed the door in of the neighbor’s apartment and I could hear gas. The gas meter was ripped out and you could hear gas just rushing out. -I asked if they were all okay. A few of them were bleeding but said ‘yeah, but we’ve got a fire in here.’ I guess the storm had caused the barbeque grill to start a fire when it was blown into the apartment. I told them they had better get out quick cause the gas was rushing out.
So I went back to the apartment and something had told me to go to Dillon’s. At Dillon’s they had a place in front of the store that you could take your propane tanks back. There was a lady in her car there and I looked and I knew she was alive. She had her head leaning up right. I was soaking wet and I just kept hollering, ‘Ma’am, are you okay?’ and when she did finally look at me there was blood running down her face. I gave her my shirt to help stop the blood.
I ran out to another car and there was a lady and her young boy who was probably eight or nine years old and the lady had told me that the storm had picked the car up 20, 30 feet and had slammed them down. All the windows were gone but they were okay.
Then I ran into the front of Dillon’s as far as I could and I stepped over the rumble and just hollered, ‘is there anybody that I can help?’ By that time a little boy about 10 or 12 years old said ‘Mister, Mister, they’re all in the cooler.’ The shape the cooler was in was awful. I could see the silver on the side of the front cooler; they had 12 packs of beer lined up, probably 3 foot tall alongside the cooler. I was standing on that and there was a beam that had fallen down off the cooler and the little boy was trying to help all that he could. I told him, I said, we couldn’t move that beam. I said, ‘we are going to hurt somebody.; So I hollered in and said, ‘are you alive?’ A lady responded. She said, ‘we have 4 pregnant women in here and one is underneath the wall.’ So I said, ‘let me have the children first. Let me have the oldest child first.’
I started getting the children over the wall. Then I got a man over the wall and then I went to find another entrance to get in there. A couple of guys came over the wall and kept bringing people over. I went around on the west side of the building and there was a crack in the wall so I got a pipe and hit the wall and a 6 to 12 inch piece of the wall came off. Then I used the piece of the wall for a battering ram and I knocked it down.
I said this was the good Lord doing this. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just His hands and his feet.
I knocked a hole into the wall, that was large enough to lift people out and I recognized one of the ladies that worked at Dillon’s. We kept bringing them out. We got the pregnant ladies out and then the police cars started coming down 20th street and I flagged them down. The policeman said fire and rescue was coming there so I went back and brought out some more people. We were filing out and I saw the lady that worked at Dillon’s and she asked about the apartments and I told her the apartments were ripped apart. She said, ‘we appreciated you coming over.’
When I got back to the apartments, they were all torn apart. I went down the first row that I lived in and I came along two elderly couples. They were okay and I told them, ‘if you don’t smell gas and if you’re not really hurt, then please stay in out of the way. The streets are flooded and electric lines are down.-I will send someone back for you.’
I went up and the next place that I stopped at was a lady that had about 5 or 6 children and I got a hold of her oldest child and took her out and got her brothers and sisters and helped the mom, whose leg was hurt. She had a huge cut on her leg and I helped her wrap it up.
More people were coming out of the apartments as I went down the next row and saw an elderly lady who was in a wheelchair and she had no idea what was going on outside. Her apartment had sliding glass doors and when the tornado hit, it shattered that glass. There was part of the doorframe that was hanging off. There was an afghan on the back of the sofa and I was thinking that I needed to cover her up. But I didn’t realize that the glass had gotten stuck in the blanket. I figured she was cold and when I went to wrap her up she said, ‘oh, no, please don’t.’ That’s when she told me that the glass had blown into the room. About that time another neighbor walked in. I asked her, ‘Ma’am, can you watch her? I’m going to go and see if I can help anybody else.’
I came upon a gentleman and I had no idea how his cellphone was working but he was telling somebody that he loved them. When he got off the phone I asked him, ‘Sir is there anything I can do?’ He said, ‘well, we just saw a little 3-year-old girl and her mother is still trapped.’ I said, ‘what do you mean her mother is still trapped?’ Through all this I was calm and through God I was calm. The gentlemen said, ‘well we can’t get her out.’ From a daddy’s point of view, I said to him, ‘so you’re just going to leave her?’ He said to me, ‘well, what are you going to do?’ I did kind of get upset then I heard my mother again. She told me, ‘go get her son.’
I crawled up the deck to the second floor where the bathroom wall was on the ground. The west wall and the east wall and the south wall had collapsed down. I guess the lady was down by the sink, she was crying. I couldn’t even see her at the time. All I could hear was her screaming for her baby. I told her, ‘the baby’s fine; it’s going to be okay.’ I knew I had to calm her down. But I asked what her name was; she said her name was Rebecca. I told her my name is Roger. I told her, ‘it’s gonna be okay, Rebecca.’ I told her, ‘me and the Lord are going to get you out of here.’ I asked if I could call her sis. She told me, ‘that would be okay Sir,’ and I said, ‘no my name is Roger.’
I looked over and I reached down and grabbed that south wall and I got hurt pretty bad during the whole thing. It broke my dentures, but that doesn’t matter. I would have died trying.
I said to Rebecca, ‘you got to keep the faith.’ I asked the lord for strength and I grabbed that south wall and I picked that wall up. And she said, ‘my legs are feeling a little bit better.’ I said, ‘Sis, hang on. We’re going to get you out of there.’ I could see her face and I could see that the wall had been broken. I said, ‘Sis is there a way that you can cover your face? I don’t want any of this to get in your eyes.’ She said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ I said again, ‘we got to keep the faith now.’
There were a lot of 2x4s around and I told her, ‘it won’t be long. Just hang in there.’ And about that time, her stepfather had shown up. She said, ‘Daddy, come help us.’ I told him that we couldn’t get to her easily because the east wall looked like it could fall. I said, ‘we got to get this girl out of here though. I asked her if she was doing okay and she said, ‘yeah I just want my baby.’ I got the 2x4s out of the way and I reached in to get her. She was still in her pajamas and I told her to relax and we got her out.
We now had to find a way to get out. Most of the ways were blocked so we had to go down the same way that I came up. So we walked down the handrail. I tried to keep strong but we got down and her mom had her little girl. I took her over to her mom and her little girl looked at me and said, ‘Mister, Mister, thank you for saving my mommy.’ I just lost it then.
Then I’m thinking about my son and my wife. Wondering if they’re dead or alive. So I asked Rebecca’s stepdad and I said, ‘Sir I need a favor, I need a ride.’ I told him that I needed to get to 20th and Rangeline. Then I heard, ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ and I saw my daughter and her husband and my three-year-old grandson, Hunter and my 2 year old granddaughter. He said, ‘Papaw, Papaw, I come to save you.’ They were in their van with the double stroller. So we put the babies in the stroller and crossed a park to my son-in-law’s parent’s house and then we just looked at what was left.
I later found out that both my son and wife were safe and my son had helped save the lives of the people in Cherry Berry during the storm.
I just want people to remember that we [Joplin] are strong. You have to keep the faith and God can move mountains with faith but so can daddies.