© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘Angels of Mercy’: Scenes of heroism, lessons learned emerge from hospital destroyed by tornado

The helicopter at Saint Johns Hospital lies destroyed outside of the Emergency Department in Joplin, Mo. on May 23.
(UPI/Tom Uhlenbrock)
The helicopter at Saint Johns Hospital lies destroyed outside of the Emergency Department in Joplin, Mo. on May 23.


A feature from KSMU's Jennifer Moore

Scenes of heroism during and after Joplin’s Sunday tornado are beginning to trickle out –and no scene is more gripping than what happened inside the nine-story St. John’s Regional Medical Center when the EF5 tornado began to wreak havoc on the roof, windows, and electricity of the hospital. 

As KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports, a mostly female staff managed to evacuate the entire hospital within 90 minutes of the tornado.

Nine Floors, 90 Minutes

Nine floors in 90 minutes:   you do the math.  That’s how quickly hospital administrators say nurses, technicians, doctors and other staff members scrambled to get all patients out.  Now, add to that having no lights, no elevators, hallways barricaded with debris, adrenaline racing, and rain falling through what was once the roof, and you’re starting to get a picture of what went on inside that hospital Sunday.

Dr. Sean Smith, a D.O. in the emergency department, said surgeons were in the midst of operating when the lights went out. They finished the surgery by flashlight then moved the patient out.

Five critical care patients died in the tornado. One visitor also died here.

Assessing the aftermath

A bulldozer shoves an upside-down car in the hospital parking lot—it’s one of dozens of vehicles overturned, demolished, and piled on top of one another. In every direction, what were once houses now look like giant matches littering the gentle hills.

An oxygen tank rests about a block away, next to a baby shoe, a necklace, and a sports bra dangling from a downed tree—each item with a story behind it. And rising above it all, the shell of the hospital sits lonely behind them, like a ghost town, with its windows blown out and white curtains waving in the wind.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which operates under the Mercy Health System, says engineers are still checking out the hull of the destroyed hospital to see whether even the structure can be saved.   It will rebuild, it says—it’s just not sure where, or when.

A first-hand account from inside the hospital

One of those nurses in the hospital working the ER when the tornado hit was Carol Chinyani.  She immigrated to the US from South Africa with her husband and children. They’ve been in Joplin for two years.

“Well, it happened so fast," Chinyani said. "We heard the sirens, and we got everybody away from the windows. And then, all of a sudden, everybody was just like, ‘Run!’  We were hiding under the desk, and everything was just flying.  And then, when I got up, the hallways…it was just blood and water, because it was raining through the ceiling.  Everything was just falling down and people were hurt,” she recalls.

Most of those injured in the ER were visitors, she said, and people who were entering the hospital.  She helped lift patients into wheelchairs, then worked at a triage station.  While her hands and mind were those of a nurse, her heart was that of a mother:  she feared for her own daughter and son.   She says even though staff members had practiced tornado drills, some underestimated the power of the storm.

“We need to take it seriously, really, because we’ve never had it happen in such a long time," Chinyani said. "I mean, the patients were safe, but for us, the staff, we were just like, you know, it’s nothing, it’s gonna pass…and ‘Bang,’ it was a shock,” she said.

One of her patients had to tell her, ‘You can stop shaking now—the storm’s past.’

Learning from St. John's experience

“They teamed up and took every one of those patients down the stairs, and had that hospital evacuated in 90 minutes,” said Drew Alexander, the the head of the emergency department.

He said St. John’s practiced drills for emergency weather often, especially in the Spring. Two years ago, it was the only hospital in Missouri that physically acted out its evacuation plan using live volunteers as patients instead of mannequins.

I ask him what other hospitals and medical facilities can learn from St. John’s experience.

“You know, I’ve been in disaster training for the state for a long time. And the one thing that is always recurrent is, whatever they plan for for the worst case scenario is never the worse case scenario,” Alexander said.

For example, a hospital might run drills without its elevators and power…but if you add to the equation injured staff members or having to navigate the labyrinth of a hospital by memory, the drill suddenly looks a lot different.

Angels of Mercy

While they were hauling patients down dark stairways, Alexander says nurses and staff members also grabbed tools and medical equipment they thought they’d need.

“They didn’t grab a few things—they stripped that place.  Those girls, they were on it.  I mean, they took the gurneys, they took the monitors, they took emergency supplies, equipment. They got everything they could get out of there,” Alexander said.

Alexander said some nurses were pierced with shards of glass when they shielded patients by laying on top of the ones they didn’t have time to move into the hallway.

“We had a nurse that was in the ER the night the tornado hit, and I have not seen her or talked to her, but I’m told by the staff who were there that she had a broken arm from the tornado.  And she put a splint on it and kept helping evacuate patients.”

It’s these same angels of mercy who are reporting to work today at a makeshift hospital at the Memorial Hall in downtown Joplin.

Theirs are the healing hands that continue to insert catheters, take blood pressure, and give immunizations in a city that has only just begun to heal.