Saturday, September 24, 2016

Five years ago today- First signing held for 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado

Facebook reminds us every once in a while of anniversaries of stories and photos we have posted. Today, I was reminded of an anniversary that had totally slipped my mind- five years ago today, John Hacker and I were at Hastings for the first signing of our book 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado.

Up to that time, the biggest signing that had been held at the Joplin Hastings was my first book Small Town News.  From the buzz I had been hearing, I knew 5:41 was going to be much bigger, especially since it was the first book to be published about the tornado, which had occurred four months earlier.

Local readers were in and out of the store all day, probably one of the few times when the readers outnumbered the shoppers who were there for the music or videos.

On that day, John Hacker and I heard many more tornado stories and readers had a chance to get their books signed not only by Hacker and me, but also by those who contributed their stories.

5:41, however, never set any Hastings records. On that same day five years ago, while 103 copies of 5:41 were sold, another signing was happening for a Joplin postcard book and it sold 120 copies.

Getting that reminder this morning made me sad, but that local readers and authors no longer have Hastings as a resource.

Five years ago, I wrote the following column for the Newton County News about that first 5:41 signing:

It wasn’t the first book signing I had ever held, but it certainly will go down as the most memorable.

As my co-author John Hacker and I were preparing for the first signing for 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado, we quickly found out there were many more stories that are waiting to be told.

During the four hours we were at Hastings Books in Joplin Saturday, we heard terrifying stories, some sad, some uplifting of the May 22 event that forever reshaped the lives of Joplin residents.

“When the tornado was over,” one woman, who was in the 15th Street Wal-Mart when it hit told me, “there were only four of us. We couldn’t see anyone else.” After a while, they did find the others who had survived, but for a few agonizing moments they believed they were the only ones who had survived out of the 300 or so who were in the store at 5:41 p.m.

John Hacker arrived in the middle of the tornado-stricken area only moments after it occurred and after helping with rescue efforts, began collecting some of the stories that were included in the book. He did not have to ask questions. People were already volunteering what they had just lived through.

It was the same way Saturday. John and I shared the stage with a few of those who contributed stories. One of my former students, Laela Zaidi, managed to get away from a Joplin High School tennis tournament to sign a few copies of the book. Laela, whose family came to the U. S. from Pakistan, not only lost her house in the tornado, but most of her extended family also lost their homes and belongings.

Denton Williams, a high school freshman who was still in his eighth grade year when the tornado hit, was at a band competition and was unable to make it. His middle school, the one where I teach, was destroyed. Denton’s story, as well as some of mine about the school, is featured in the volume.

Kristin Huke, a Carthage artist, was visiting a family member at Freeman when that hospital began handling the brunt of the emergency work after St. John’s, just a short distance away, was struck by the violent storm. Her gripping story was also included in the book.

Gary Harrall, a Diamond High School graduate, and another former student of mine, told of waiting the storm out in a basement shelter as his house was blown away.

Joplin High School student Shaney Delzell, also one of my former students, lost her home in Duquesne, an area that has been largely forgotten by the media, but which was almost destroyed May 22.

Other contributors, including Rhonda Hatfield, Michael R. Sharp, and Andrea Thomas, were at the book signing.

Their stories I knew, though it was good to hear updates. Everyone who came through the line had another story. For some, it had happened to them personally; others related stories from friends and relatives.

Among those who came were the grandparents of Joplin High School graduate Will Norton, the YouTube celebrity who was killed only a short time after receiving his diploma during graduation ceremonies at Missouri Southern State University. Will is featured in a couple of the stories in 5:41.

As you might expect, the family has had a hard time dealing with the loss of one so young, with so much promise.

The signing reminded me of the book itself- a mixture of sad, humorous, and tragic, with an emphasis on survival and fighting back.

If there was one refrain I heard over and over again Saturday it was, “We’re not going to let this tornado beat us.” It was phrased different times in different words, but always with the same message.

The stories in the book, although representative of what happened during the tornado and its aftermath, are just a handful of the thousands that will be told for years to come.

Though I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share some of those stories in 5:41, the last thing I ever wanted this book to be was simply a recounting of horror stories.

Hopefully, the message that shines through will be the one that I received Saturday- Though the events of May 22 were devastating, it takes more than an EF-5 tornado to bring Joplin to its knees.

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