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Names Put Human Face on Joplin Death Toll

Joplin Search

May 28: Bonnie Branham looks through a water-soaked Bible as she salvages belongings from her son's devastated apartment in Joplin, Mo. (AP2011)

They range from 1-year-old Hayze Howard to 92-year-old Margaret Tuit, but the official list of Joplin tornado victims does not tell their stories, or that of teenager Will Norton killed on his graduation day.

The numbers and names only begin to describe the human toll extracted from this southwest Missouri city by one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history.

On Saturday, Missouri state officials said they had 142 sets of human remains. The city of Joplin had said the death toll reached 142 but later scaled that back to 139 fatalities. There is a chance remains of one person are in more than one set, state officials said.

Whatever the exact toll, it is almost certain to rise because nearly a week after the storm 100 people were still listed as missing. Nine of those have been reported dead by family members but not yet identified.

The official list of 73 names released on Saturday was of victims who have been positively identified and whose relatives have been notified.

One name on the list was 18-year-old Norton, whose tragic story sparked an outpouring of sympathy on social networks. His body was finally found in a debris-strewn pond that was searched several times after the tornado. He was not found initially because there was so much debris in the water, his relatives said.

Norton was driving home from his high school graduation ceremony with his father last Sunday when the tornado hit. Norton's father tried desperately to hold onto Will with both arms but the boy was sucked from the vehicle by the 200 mile-per-hour winds.

"As a dad, you don't want to let your kids go," Norton's aunt Tracey Presslor told Reuters.

The teenager, who planned to study film in college, was a minor celebrity on YouTube under the name "Willdabeast" because of his comic videos such as one spoofing the survival television show "Man vs. Wild."

"He was amazing, always very happy, very religious, loved by friends," Presslor said.

Some families have expressed frustration at the slow pace of identifying the victims and releasing the remains. Families have not been allowed to enter the morgue to view and identify the remains. Authorities defended that policy as necessary to be sure that no mistakes are made.

"A year from now, two years from now, those loved ones will want to be sure that the person they buried is truly their mother, their father, their daughter, their son," said Andrea Spillars, Missouri Deputy Director of Public Safety.

Presslor said the funeral for Will Norton will be in about a week. The family intended to set up a memorial fund in his name with the local Humane Society because he loved animals.

"I'm sure we're going to have a hard time ahead of us, but we're going to be OK," Presslor said.