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Missouri Man Describes Brother's Death

Cliff Hewitt can only imagine his brother's horror.

As storm sirens wailed across this Missouri Ozarks town, Bob Hewitt scrambled to get his wife and four children to a neighbor's shelter. And then away he sprinted, hoping to also bring a neighbor and her children there.

His good intentions, as described by his brother, proved deadly during Sunday's destructive tornado.

The twister that tore through this town of 2,000 killed Bob Hewitt and two others on a night when tornadoes left at least 40 dead in Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee and sent thousands scurrying for cover beneath desks, in basements and even bathtubs.

Bob Hewitt was 40 when he died. His neighbors in Stockton — and people in Pierce City south of here — press on with reconstruction following a night of swirling devastation.

"Although we're burying a family member, a lot of people are having to start over," said Cliff, days after frantically trying to breathe life back into his brother. "There's no finality to this."

———

The evening had seemed innocent enough to Cliff Hewitt, 36, as he drove with his 19-year-old sister, Jennifer Hewitt Smith, into Stockton for dinner.

Lighting strikes slashed the sky in the distance. Storm clouds were turning day to night.

Though the radio was abuzz with severe weather warnings, those riding with Cliff's group didn't have the car stereo on. They chatted while rolling into the town square and past its buildings, many a century old.

Storm sirens sounded, but still Cliff's group found little cause for alarm despite cloud-darkened skies.

"It didn't appear to be anything but a spring shower," he said.

Cliff called another brother and learned a tornado was supposed to hit Stockton about 6:30 p.m., within about 10 minutes. Cliff looked up and saw "this black cell in the sky," rotating and evil-looking.

"The sky was enough to terrify me. It didn't take a second glance to know we were in trouble."

———

In Pierce City, Richard and Darlene Young were on their porch, talking about hiring someone to remove a maple tree near their single-story, wood-framed house.

"The next thing we know, it was here," Richard, 65, recalls of the tornado that rumbled into town.

The Youngs and their dog scrambled to a bedroom closet and "held onto each other for dear life," Richard says.

Glass shattered and flew. There was loud banging and howling wind that had Darlene, 63, fearing for her life.

The storm cleared their front yard of every tree — except that pesky maple. Their windows were broken, their roof shingles were gone. Winds of up to 200 mph shot debris through the home's siding and moved a gazebo several feet.

In Pierce City the tornado killed one person and leveled much of the historic business district before churning to the east, leaving two more dead in a trailer park that was leveled near Monett.

Among the dead there: an infant snatched by the wind from a parent's arms.

———

Back in Stockton, Cliff and his group retreated to the courthouse's basement, as did many others.

He'd heard that tornadoes sounded like freight trains, often raining hail. But "this one was very silent, very deceiving."

Something slammed the courthouse. Booms and crashes were met by panicky gasps and screams by those hunkered down.

It was 6:31 p.m. About that time, Bob Hewitt was dying.

When eerie silence came moments later, a woman stepped out and, with what Cliff called "sheer panic," screamed: "There's nothing left!"

Others slowly ventured outside and looked north toward a city park that most days they couldn't see because of towering trees. Their view now was unobstructed; most trees were gone. Those left standing were stripped of bark.

Much of the town square was dusty mounds of brick and stone.

"It was numbing," Cliff says. What he saw left his mouth agape. The park and Bob Hewitt's house on its edge in a small valley were both gone.

———

Unable to drive on debris-clogged roads, Cliff set off on foot for his brother through downed power lines — a scene he considered surreal. He walked gingerly at first to avoid being electrocuted but sprinted as he got closer and worry enveloped him.

He splashed through a creek and "where the woods should have been."

"I had to get there. We were crazy people at a crazy time."

He saw only a concrete slab where his brother's three-story ranch house had been.

When Cliff yelled for his brother, Bob Hewitt's wife, Kristi, shouted back. She was standing over her husband, who was unconscious and on his back — not far from the neighbor woman named Mary he tried to help. Another injured man was propped against the exposed roots of a toppled tree.

Kristi Hewitt, less than two weeks from her wedding anniversary, rushed to keep her unharmed children — ages 13, 9, 7 and 2 — from seeing death. Still, Cliff went to work on his unresponsive brother.

Some of Bob Hewitt's injuries were clear, including a forehead bruise indicative of a "very substantial blow." Cliff didn't know until later the storm nearly severed his brother's left arm by a "very deep, horrific circular cut."

Cliff felt for his brother's pulse. Nothing. Cliff put his head over his brother's chest to see if it was rising and falling with breaths. Nothing. A paramedic came by and checked Bob's neck for a pulse, found none and walked away.

Cliff puffed a couple of breaths into his brother, then wiped away vomit from Bob's mouth after the brother convulsed slightly. Bob gasped a couple of times. Still no pulse. A paramedic came again, saw Bob's pupils were fixed and convinced Cliff to stop.

At another ambulance worker's urging, Cliff and his sister scouted for other victims.

A couple of hours later, Cliff did what he resisted doing by cell phone hours earlier: Tell his mother, already aware that a tornado had hit Stockton, that one of her sons was dead.

Days later, Cliff still was angry about his brother's dash into harm's way instead of simply joining his family in the shelter — and living.

"But we're proud that when someone was in need of help, he took steps. It took courage," Cliff says, crying. "And that's all we have to hold onto."