Tornado survivor: Split-second decision saved my life
Tussiona Mikell debated taking shelter at this Walmart -- but instead chose to stay hunkered down at the Dollar Tree.
May 23rd, 2011
02:36 PM ET

Tornado survivor: Split-second decision saved my life

Tussiona Mikell was at the cashier's register inside a Dollar Tree in Joplin, Missouri, when a friend called her to tell her a storm was approaching. Mikell lives 12 miles from Joplin, in Neosho, Missouri, and was in town just to get a few items.

Then, the sirens started blaring.

The alerts were saying a tornado was headed straight down the street. Mikell took a split-second to make a decision. At first, she was going to head to the Walmart nearby, but she was afraid she might get caught trying to make it.

The Dollar Tree cashier said "Well, we have a freezer here, we normally go into the cooler when something like this happens," Mikell told CNN. "They were telling everyone, 'Get to the back, get to the back.' We rushed into the coolers and we could just hear everything on the outside, but we couldn't see what was happening."

Mikell and five others waited out the storm in the cooler.

"We could just hear things caving in but we couldn't see what was going on," she told CNN. "There was a lot of calling on Jesus. People were crying, saying different things. I was calling out 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.' "

Finally, after about 45 minutes, the group tried to make their way out of cooler. But it wouldn't budge.

"The ceiling fell down and blocked the freezer," Mikell recalled. "Everyone was trying to push to get (the door) cracked open. But we couldn't get it wide enough to get us out."

The group all tried pulling out their cell phones - but couldn't call for help. They had no service.

Then, the smell of gas started to pour into the freezer, Mikell said. The group feared the stores gas line had broken.

With the walls of the store mostly destroyed around them, they were able to see through the crack they had made in the freezer and shouted to a passerby for help.

"Everything else around was destroyed," she said. "We were hollering, 'Help, help, we're stuck.' "

Two people helped pry open the freezer and Mikell and the others were able to make their way out of the shelter.

That's when Mikell heard about the massive damage and injuries at Walmart.

"There was so much debris," Mikell said, recalling what she first saw when she stepped outside. "When I came out, everything was demolished. It's unbelievable."

The parking lot was littered with overturned cars and rubble. The exterior was damaged and according to witnesses, the damage was massive, Mikell said.

"How blessed I was not to even go over there," she said. "It was a disaster over at Walmart. When I think about the quick choice I made, it makes me shake."

Despite being a little sore and achy from being cramped into the partially collapsed store freezer, Mikell is profoundly thankful that she was able to even speak with CNN Monday.

"I'm alive and I'm so grateful," she said.

soundoff (95 Responses)
  1. Cesar Troll #52

    Am I really on the internet?

    May 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cricket

    We will be hearing a lot of these survival stories.
    My thoughts and prayers are with the people and the town of Joplin.

    May 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kirk

    Build commercial buildings and houses with concrete and stone, not stucco and siding. Remember the three little pigs.

    May 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |

    wow.. they were very lucky and smart to get in the freezer and stay put..

    May 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Barry

    This woman, and the reporter by agreeing with her, are both giving very bad advise. Never leave your car exposing yourself to debris. Never huddle down next to a brick wall it can be blown over on you.. The car weighs more than a person and it will take more wind to lift it. The car has a steel frame and roof to protect you from flying debris versus your bare skin. She was not saved by a split second decision, she placed herself and the friend and child at greater risk. If she survived huddling near the car then the car was unscathed.

    May 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • A citizen of tornado alley

      You obviously are not from tornado alley. Did you see the destruction of the cars??!!! NEVER EVER stay in your car, it is a heavy duty projectile missile and with you in it. Get OUT of your car to a low lying area, a ditch, or inside somewhere, even the safety of a convenience store cooler will save your life.

      The BEST thing is to be weather alert, always. Today Oklahoma is in a shooting gallery and we are all aware and watchful. You learn this as a child and to always have a plan when the conditions are right. I feel so sorry for the people of Joplin, it happened here not to long ago and it WILL happen again.

      May 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ttommy

      You have no idea what you are talking about. The very last place u want to be in a tornado is a car because the wind get under and lift it. You're better off in a low lying ditch. If u don't know what you're talking about don't be giving advice.

      May 23, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • A reader

      And, if you would have read more carefully, she was INSIDE the store already. She was debating whether to go to the Walmart, a larger building, wondering if it may have been safer. She did the right thing by not leaving and is giving great advice. Never leave a building and expose yourself outside to the possibilities.

      May 23, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. catheryn

    Thank God for his mercy!

    May 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ttommy

      So I guess God had no mercy for those who died? Please explain

      May 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. LWench

    Just remember, NEVER go to Wal-Mart. They usually group you in the middle of the store (not in the reinforced bathrooms) and they won't let you leave usually. Those box stores are a death trap. If you hear sirens, I'd guess you'd be safer in your car than in there!

    May 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Eric

    Barry, please read the article before posting you dumba$$. She was in the dollar store when the sirens came on, she NEVER left the dollar store until the storm had passed.

    May 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. i cant believe is not butter

    Dose por people! They should sue walmart!

    May 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. i cant believe is not butter

    Yea barry you dduummmmbbb asssss!....WHO ELSE THINKS BARRY IS A DUUUMMMBBBBB AAAASSS? Say i

    May 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mel

    My prayers go out to all the people in joplin and the surrounding counties that had to experience this destruction. god bless.

    May 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Andy

    Why sue Walmart? What did they do wrong? Companies can not be help responsible for nature.

    May 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jon bo

    Dam they survived I ewoulda waited for this thing to suck me in from outside

    May 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jon bo

    Jumping in a tornado solves all your problems

    May 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Elvix

    God has mercy on whom so ever he wants. So yes, Thank God 4 his Mercy

    May 23, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
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