JOPLIN, Mo. – Rod Pace, manager of the Med Flight helicopter service at St. John's Regional Medical Center, had just finished payroll paperwork Sunday evening when he decided to stay an extra 15 to 20 minutes to let the menacing weather pass.
From the second floor, he watched the storm approach from the southwest, just like so many other systems. The swirling rain began to form about a mile away.
Then the glass doors he was holding onto — with a 100-pound magnet to keep them locked — were suddenly pulled open. Pace was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll, all the while clinging to the handles.
He headed for the hospital's interior for cover. Then he heard a roar. Pace and a co-worker pushed on a door trying to keep it shut, but it kept swaying back and forth.
"I've heard people talk about being in tornadoes and saying it felt like the building was breathing," Pace said. "It was just like that."
Outside there was an explosion. Glass shards pelted the building, and Pace heard screams. He helped pull debris off two people outside the emergency room.
A high school principal had just finished presiding over graduation when he learned that his school had been destroyed.
Joplin High School held its graduation Sunday afternoon at Missouri Southern State University. Principal Kerry Sachetta was among 75 to 100 people still lingering on campus when the twister hit. They took cover in a university basement.
After the storm passed, Sachetta began receiving text messages warning him about severe damage at the high school. He found the top part of the auditorium gone, the band and music rooms caved in, windows blown out and his office missing its roof. Fifty-year-old trees outside the school had been stripped of their limbs.
Two churches across the street were "completely gone," and Sachetta was stunned by the condition of the nearby Franklin Technology Center.
"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," he said. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."
Joshua Wohlford and his family were saved by a shelf of toys.
With the tornado bearing down on their trailer, Wohlford, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers sought shelter at a Walmart. They escaped serious injury when a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a tent over them as they huddled on the floor.
"It was 15 minutes of hell," Wohlford said. "We were buried."
The family was taken to a hospital, where a fleet of school buses brought in people with minor injuries. Wohlford helped unload passengers.
On Monday, one of those buses took his family to a shelter downtown because their car had been totaled by the storm in the Walmart parking lot. They weren't sure how they would get home — or what awaited them there.
Kelley Fritz and her husband spent part of Monday rummaging through the remains of a storage building. But they quickly realized they'd never find the things they had stored there or the many belongings that were ripped from their home after the twister tore away the roof.
When the worst of the weather had passed, their sons, both Eagle Scouts, went out to survey the neighborhood and quickly realized every home was destroyed.
"My sons had deceased children in their arms when they came back," she said. "My husband and I went out and saw two or three dead bodies on the ground."
Fritz was surprised she had survived. "You could just feel the air pull up, and it was so painful. I didn't think we were going to make it, it happened so fast."
Matthew Parks works at a homeless shelter — and now he's concerned that he and his pregnant wife may end up living there after the twister badly damaged their house.
They weren't home when the tornado hit but returned Monday morning to find the ceiling in the kitchen caved in and water soaking the floor. The only room spared was the nursery prepared for their first child. It had virtually no damage.
While Parks collected baby clothes and other items from the nursery, his parents swept up broken glass and mopped water from the wood floor.
Eileen Parks had struggled to reach her son and daughter-in-law Sunday night. She was just happy they were OK.
"The phones were out and I thought, 'Oh Matthew, please call me,'" she said.
A pair of Missouri lawmakers survived the deadly Joplin tornado by huddling with other customers in the kitchen of an IHOP restaurant that was destroyed.
State Rep. Bill Lant said he was just getting ready to order to order dinner for his family when fellow Rep. Bill White noticed debris twirling in the clouds. Within in a minute, a crowd of about 40 diners had scrambled into the kitchen — some squeezing into a walk-in cooler, others such as Lant hiding under the stainless food preparation tables.
Lant said he tried to hold a swinging kitchen door closed as glass fragments, dust and other debris showered down upon them.
"It was just a huge roaring," Lant recalled Monday. "When all was said and done, the walls were gone, the roof was gone, but we were all still there."
In the restaurant parking lot, cars had been tossed about. Although his van door was nearly torn off its hinges, the vehicle was still upright. Lant busted out the rest of the van's broken windshield and drove his family home with rain blowing into the vehicle.
"I think the only reason we're here is all the prayers that were going up over the roaring of the tornado," Lant said. "It's a horrifying event. It's something you're totally powerless to do anything about."
Associated Press writers David A. Lieb, Jim Salter, Kurt Voigt, Alan Scher Zagier and Chris Blank contributed to this report.