Survivor: Tornadoes always 'came and went' but never left destruction like this
Part of a mangled car door sits atop a tree near the spot where Charles Richardson's home once stood.
May 25th, 2011
01:01 PM ET

Survivor: Tornadoes always 'came and went' but never left destruction like this

Editor's Note: CNN's Ashley Fantz, who grew up in Missouri, is on the ground in Joplin talking with residents who survived the tornado.

As a little girl growing up in Missouri my parents rushed me into our basement several times when the tornado sirens went off. They always did a good job of making it seem fun, like we were going to play down there. Each time we emerged, luckily there was no damage. I don't recall anything terrible happening.

So as I got older and the sirens sounded, I usually went outside to watch the night sky light up. Dark clouds always pass, I figured. I rarely thought about getting hurt. Like a lot of people who grow up here, I figured the odds were on my side.

I heard the same refrain from folks in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri.

It was just going to be a big awful storm and it would pass. Everything would be fine - that's what survivors told me over and over as they stood on the splinters of their homes.

Trees on one block were decapitated. A car door hung 30 feet in the air from one of the huge old sycamores that had refused to give up its thickest limb.

An older man, looking dazed, stood on a swath of insulation. Charles Richardson - with red suspenders neatly holding his Carhartt jeans in place - wore a backpack oxygen tank, the tubes running into his nose. His beige work shirt was covered with dry patches of blood. As I got a few feet from him, I saw he was crying. I stopped.

"Come on now, come on," he said.

Interview me if you need to, his tone said, just ask your questions and leave me alone because this is hard enough.

He blew his nose with a pink handkerchief and told me he had lived in Joplin his whole life.

"I've seen tornadoes come and go," he said. "This one came when I happened to be in my garage. It came so fast and I went and ran from my house but it was there and it was on me."

He paused.

"You know it's funny girl, I used to love to watch these," he said. "But this one was so black. It was not what I wanted to see."

His voice trailed off. He looked around.

Everything he had ever owned was no more. The only recognizable thing left of the home he had lived in his entire life was the skeleton of a fireplace - a dozen bricks.

He looked at me again.

"They always came and went," he said.

He didn't know this storm would be any different.

I didn't know what else to say to him, so we just stood there together for a minute. I told him my name. I said that I had grown up with the sirens and I used to think the storms were beautiful too.

He, meanwhile, tugged on his red suspenders trying to keep himself from crying in front of me, a young woman - a stranger.

Then he put his hands on my arm and said, "That's enough, girl."

There was nothing else to say.

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Filed under: Joplin • Missouri • On the Ground • Survivor Stories • Tornadoes
soundoff (88 Responses)
  1. fokjou

    That's what she said...

    May 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Shannon

    People who live in tornado prone areas should be required to have basements or storm shelters of some sort. You can't just hope an ef5 doesn't roll up because eventually, as we've seen, they will. According to stats on weather.com they occur about every 6 years but we were lucky enough not to have any for a stretch of like 8 or 9 years around the year 2000. Ef5 don't happen every year but they CAN happen. Why are people acting so shocked by this occurrence? I wouldn't want to live in that area as it is but I know if I did I'd be living in a house with a well-built, underground basement. I think a lot more people would have survived if everyone had basements or storm cellars and people heeded the warnings and sirens rather than driving around in potentially deadly weather or standing outside to watch the tornado.

    May 25, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      Thats not always an option. Joplin may be far enough south that the water table is too high for basements. I know this is why most homes in oklahoma dont have them (my relatives having lived through the 1996 F5 in oklahoma city).

      Think before you speak, there may be a reason why a house doesnt have one.

      May 25, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • maqui

      Yo, QB Shannon, most of us in my part of Missouri don't have a choice of a basement. Look up the term "water table" or "bedrock". Our home is our home, we build the best we can afford. Quit condescending.

      May 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ralf The Dog

      You can't always hear sirens going off when you are driving on the interstate. There is a cool app for the iPhone that works like a weather radio. It tracks your location by GPS and tells you when a warning is issued for your location.

      May 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • rhoda

      blah blah blah. got all the answers, right? you should be in charge of everything.

      May 25, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • YDB

      Yeah thats a good idea maybe we can get government aid from pakistan or haiti to build them......

      May 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • M Link

      Shannon, I live in a city an hour east of Joplin. I'm guessing you're a Republican, right? Your comment shows a complete lack of awareness of the fact that many people don't have the means or the option to have the home with the storm shelter, or the home with the basement (and as others have pointed out, Missouri's bedrock is something that anyone here who has tried to build something knows all about). And I suppose there are no apartment dwellers in your city? I'm very happy for you that you can be sure that you'll always be able to afford a home with a basement or storm shelter but that is simply not reality for a lot of people. I personally know many people who have been on the ground in Joplin. This is the kind of hellish devastation that deserves nothing but sympathy and support, and NONE of your condescension.

      May 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      There are all sorts of valid reasons why a house may not have a basement. Generally, throughout most of the midwest, if a basement CAN be built with the house, it is. Some areas unfortunately have high water tables or other situations that prevent it. Another thing to keep in mind is that tornados can develop in virtually ALL of the United States. Some areas are more prone than others, but they are possible throughout most of North America. Getting arrogant with people is a little pointless...

      May 25, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alabama Survivor

      I would like to point out that a direct hit from an EF4 or EF5 will wipe away the house above and literally suck you out of a basement. It is obvious that you (Shannon) don't have a clue.

      May 25, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. sixoh

    I love watching people argue on here. Lol Calling each other "idiot" this and "dumazs" that...

    May 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Megan

    What an excellent article...nicely done, Ashley Fantz. As another Missourian, I admire your ability to so accurately capture and describe the heart & soul of one of our own.

    May 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Makingmecrazy

    For all of you who are commenting about the types of homes that are in these area's – do you realized that a large majority of the people that perished were in cars or away from their homes? I just really wanted you to start posting about tornado, flood proof and hurricane proof cars as well or is it that you think Americans should ALWAYS stay home as well? Your post are inconsiderate and rude. Please do not judge what these people are going through, how they should feel, who they should have faith or not in, or how they should live their life in the future. Also – not one person any place on this earth is safe from this type or another type of tragic events. Please hold your judgement and do something more positive with the energy you are using to be hateful to these people when you should be encouraging and supporting them for what they have been through. YOU MAY BE NEXT!

    May 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Makingmecrazy

      Sorry for the typo's but I just so aggravated with the comments of the know it alls!!!

      May 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RUSS STREET

    I GREW UP IN ARKANSAS , AGE IS EXPERIENCE AND WE HERE IN THE HEART LAND OF AMERICA HAVE SEEN OUR SHARE OF TORNADOS . POINT IS , CHAD MYER IS FULL OF ( B/S ) AND I THINK HE WILL KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS.
    II'M SURE TERE ARE A FEW BULLS IN NEBRASKA. THANKS CNN.

    May 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  7. hahahaha

    That's what she said lol

    May 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Concerned

    Has anyone heard any follow-up story about that 16 year old boy missing in Joplin? His parents were on John King and Pierce Morgan... A partents worst nighmare..

    May 25, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sharon Johnson

    Ashely,
    Thank you for sharing such a touching story. Your kindness and concern were evident in your interview of this man.

    May 25, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Faith

    Some people literally did not have time to go from a workshop to the basement. The tornado hit so fast and so hard that people didn't have time to get out of cars, to get downstairs, to do anything but hold on to their shoes and hope for the best. It's terrifying. If I had to choose I would pick a hurricane over a tornado 100% of the time.

    May 25, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • TW

      You may want to rethink that...a tornado often skips, a hurricane takes everything in its path.

      May 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacob

      @TW: but this one didn't skip. It was half a mile wide and stayed on the ground for a solid six miles.

      May 25, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. nomorebs

    Greetings...My first comment is to thank the author for gracefully sharing an insight into this tragedy by mingling her experience with the suffering these folk are going through, she painted a human picture that struck me like a knife in the heart as I read it. My second comment/question is why when we have an article discussing the sorrow left behind by an F5 tornado...a good number of the comments on here are posturing, personal attacks, put downs, and whatever...it really makes no sense to me...give the dead a silent moment of though...no need to tell someone how stupid they are because you disagree with them...

    May 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jenn

    I grew up in Missouri too. Many times I was hustled to basements or inner rooms. Unlike Ashley, I was terrified of summer storms for this very unpredictable nature of tornadoes. Everyone else shrugged it off, but the paranoid in me always wondered if one of these days it did happen. It wasn't like there hadn't been tornadoes that had hit my town or county before. Those storms still scare me. I was always amazed at my fellow townfolks' ability to just shrug it off and move on. But it's how they persevere in the Midwest, you always believe that the odds are stacked in your favor most of the time. Ultimately those were odds I couldn't deal with, so I moved away to a place with its own natural dangers, but without the tornadoes that terrified me as a child.

    Ironically as I type this, where my father lives in MO is now under a tornado watch, (not warning). It's part of living out there, and you hope that despite it all, it never happens to you. But sometimes it does, that's how nature works. But I do feel so much for Joplin, having lived out there, understanding how this feels. My prayers go out to all of you.

    May 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. banasy

    What a beautiful article. This made me cry, literally cry. Ashley painted such a picture with her words; I can see Mr. Richardson in my mind's eye, down to his red suspenders.
    My heart cries for Mr. Richardson, and everyone else who have lost so much because of these hellish storms.
    My thoughts and prayers are with them all.

    May 25, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bear&Browning

    This man reminds me of every old man in the south! It's sad to watch hurt of a southern man. Many take pride in their surrounding...they love their homes their neighborhoods their state...just as every woman and child does around the delta. This story was so well written and so touching. I guess he should of had a shelter and all of us in the Mississippi delta should have built our houses on floating logs. We are Lucky to have homes these days.not all can have the basements. Eveeryday is a blessing and everyday those blessings can be taken with or without a basement! I will continue to pray for these families and the idiots with all the answers and none of the understanding!!

    May 25, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. norm

    Could of should of no one know what these poor people are going thru so it reslly does not matter what you say.

    May 25, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
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