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. me

    I think everywhere should have a clear emergancy plan in advance and stick to it like she did because nature stricks fast best wishs to everyone who has been devastated

    May 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mssld0418


    May 23, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Most2hip

    HARRP !

    May 23, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. APAK

    Praise the Lord!!

    May 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. franky

    Should b sued! False imprisonment resulting n should b allowed 2 leave! Who is walmart to say you can't leave

    May 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. MamaTeeJay

    The scenes from Joplin are very similar to those in N. Alabama from April. Prayers for all those affected. Until you have seen it in person, you just cannot comprehend this kind of destruction. Simply horrifying.

    May 23, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Joe Kokinda

    We are the Company that installed the Refrigeration equipment at this Dollar Tree Store last October 28th.

    We are shocked and stunned as we viewed the devastation that was unleashed. We bond with the local residents and Building Officials when we do our work all over the US. We are proud of that work as we are of the Manufacturers of the equipment. We are based in North East OH (Avon) and have been doing work for Dollar Tree for 5 years, and feel your loss.

    We will be in St Louis area on Thursday, and will visit the site and speak with the Dollar Tree employees. I look forward to seeing Vickie Johnson the Store Manager and seeing how everyone made out.

    Good Luck, Joplin. We here in Ohio feel you.

    May 23, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. nyresident

    I really think these southern states that are prone to tornadoes should have a law passed that makes building with bricks mandatory. The expense is higher, but in the long run it'll save many lives.

    May 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brickless in bama

      How would having a brick home or building save anyone or anything? My dear friends stayed with us after the events in N. Alabama trashed their brick home.. Most of the damage to their home was caused by flying BRICKS from other brick homes in their neighborhood that were completely leveled by the tornados.. brick or no brick, if it is time to go, it is time to go, nothing can or will save you

      May 23, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pyro

      I live in joplin there was nothing spared not even the brick buildings everthing the tornado touched it destroyed.

      May 23, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mary Ellen

    My thoughts and prayers are with all of you there!!! I live in Vermont, we dont have tornados here. I can't imagine what you all are going through!!
    Blessing to all of you!!
    Mary Ellen

    May 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dude

    Basements save lives in t

    May 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mississippi gal

    Its sad to see some of these comments. I would ask u to pray and think about what all these folks has been thru..God bless yall, keep ur faith.. Our Lord will never leave u nor forsake u..

    May 23, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. The Bowell family

    I heard the tape this morning...... We live in Ohio. To hear you speak the name of Jesus was beautiful....and bitter sweet..... Thank you. You are an inspiration to all your Christian brothers and sisters<3 the Bowell family

    May 23, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. stryker

    I went to joplin today and the pictuers on tv don't even begin to show the real devistation on the faces of the families who lost everything. And yes the last place you want to be is in a car. And if their is a tornado warning businesses will tell you not to leave, we were at a highschool graduation yesterday when the sirens went off and they would not let us leave they locked the doors. Your safer in any structer no matter what it is rather than trying to get to your car. I only live 30min from joplin and the storm that went through their passed over us before it spawned to tornado. Their was ample warings going out in the area all day long and we knew their was a high possibility that a tornado would drop from this storm. People just don't pay attention to the warnings. God bless joplin

    May 23, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jimbo

    Wood, Brick, Stud n Crud, don't matter. It is the main framing members that matter. There is a contractor/architect that was highlighted here on CNN a while back who specializes in "tornado proof" home and building construction. He used Structural Steel framing members tied down to monster footings and tornado "blow out" vents to keep the structure intact. It was neat design that I thought was overkill. The cost was 40% more than conventional but paid for largely by reduced premiums over 20 years. I guess it makes more sense now.

    Trust in the engineers.

    May 23, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Thomas

    I am very glad this woman is safe, and she did the right thing by staying – I don't Know that I would have gotten in a cooler – Getting trapped in one without help would have been terrible and possibly deadly the gas leaking and the cold. But, I went to college in Joplin and instantly called my roommate and his wife when I heard to be sure they were both safe as they still live there. It is just amazing to me seeing the destruction of a place I know all to well.

    As for the Wal-Mart bashers and other big box bashers those associates are trying to do the right thing and keep people safe. Telling people it is okay to run out and try to outrun the storm is the dumbest thing ever and people would complain if that was told to customers. I know from first hand experience they try to get people into safe places and collers are normally not a safe place. Again, imagine freezing in them or the gas leaking and not being able to get out. The reason they send people were they do its it is where the contractor has ruled in best so the bedding department(softest things in the store and things to grab for cover), and bathrooms although still not the safest(very small but they are normally on an outside wall or they are near the backroom with lots of gas and heavy machinery and steal that is also not safe if it comes tearing through as this tornado was capable of doing). But to those people I say what about the hospital, and the high school and all the other "safe" places people would normally go to during a storm like this do you want everyone to sue them too – get a life. The big companies including Wal-Mart are already reacting sending trucks of water, clothing, and money to help in the efforts. The are coordinating with RedCross for further assistance too – a comment made by the RedCross and not just by Wal-Mart,. So I say good for the associates way to keep as many people safe and alive as you did – it could have been much worse.

    May 23, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
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