JOPLIN, Mo. – They were regular churchgoers, devoted parents, seniors in their retirement years and children with untold promise.
Some gave their lives to save strangers, thrust by circumstance and human instinct into the role of hero. Others faced a parent's worst fear, losing their lives while also failing to protect their children from death.
Few outside the town of about 50,000 will recognize the names of the dead. But Joplin's close-knit community lost a staggering array of human capital in the May 22 tornado, including seniors who were the town's history and young people who were its future. Some lived their lives ordinarily, only to be defined in their final moments by breathtaking courage.
"I don't know how you put it in context," said Ron Sampson, executive director of Joplin Workshop Inc., where three employees — lifelong friends with Down syndrome — died when their Iowa Street home was destroyed. "Between the physical destruction and the loss of life, it's so overwhelming. Everybody is still in a fog."
Thirteen children died, including several students at Joplin High School, which was flattened. Two pairs of siblings were killed, and five children perished alongside a parent who also died.
Familiar faces at the cell phone store and 15th Street Walmart, three Elks Lodge members who attended weekly Bingo games, and three Harmony Heights Baptist Church worshippers didn't survive the Sunday afternoon twister, the nation's deadliest single tornado in six decades.
Some were praised by name by Barack Obama in a presidential visit one week later, while others died anonymously. Still more continue on in the virtual world, their memories perpetuated in YouTube and Facebook tributes.
Among them was 18-year-old Will Norton, whose story became widely known after it was learned the tornado, carrying 200 mph winds, pulled him out through his SUV's sunroof as he drove home from graduation. His funeral, scheduled for Sunday, figures to dwell not on the way he died but on the unusual way he lived: traveling the world, unlike other Joplin teens.
His family's travel agency allowed Norton to take to the skies. He ultimately would visit 15 countries in Europe and Africa. He became a private pilot like his father and uncle. He was headed to Southern California with plans to study film production at Chapman University and dreams of making movies in Hollywood. He honed his chops on YouTube, gaining thousands of followers as "willdabeast8888," a nod to both his first name and the African antelope he saw abroad.
His father, who was in the passenger seat as the tornado bore down, remains hospitalized with broken ribs, a compressed spine, a rod in his left leg, a compound fracture of his arm and other serious injuries — but plans to attend his son's funeral.
Will "really believed in doing good. He's kind of the face of hope," said his aunt, Tracey Presslor. "But it's not about Will. It's about all the survivors, and all the people who lost their homes or their loved ones."
The storm was especially deadly for the aged. More than a third of those who died were 65 or older, including at least 10 in the Greenbriar nursing home. Neighbors told of hearing screams when the funnel smashed the building and sent bodies airborne.
Some victims have become known for their final moments. Christopher Don Lucas, 27, worked on a Navy submarine until a back injury at sea forced him into civilian life two years ago. A father of two with a pregnant fiancée, the Pizza Hut manager rushed the other employees and at least a dozen customers into the restaurant's walk-in freezer as the half-mile-wide tornado approached.
As the winds whipped through the store, Lucas grabbed a bungee cord to keep the freezer door shut. "He just started pulling with all his might," said his father, Terry Lucas.
Co-worker Daniel Fluharty grabbed Lucas by the waist. Waitress Kayleigh Savannah Teal, 16, held on to her manager's leg. The winds flung open the freezer, throwing the three workers 20 to 30 feet. Fluharty survived; Lucas and Teal did not. "He went out facing the tornado head-on," Terry Lucas said. "He didn't flinch."
Miles "Dean" Wells was also ex-military, a master electrician who worked at Home Depot and cared for a homebound wife with a severe muscular disease. Wells, 59, died while guiding an estimated 40 to 50 customers and employees to the back of the store for safety; a prefab concrete wall collapsed on him. Like Lucas, Wells was singled out by President Obama at a Joplin memorial service one week later.
"In the face of winds that showed no mercy, no regard for human life, that did not discriminate by race or faith or background, it was ordinary people, swiftly tested, who said, 'I'm willing to die right now so that someone else might live,'" the president said.
Wells sang in the choir at First Christian Church in Webb City. In recent years, he mastered the art of whistling, recording two CDs with a third loaded on his computer, awaiting his final touches.
"His whistling sounded like a flute," his daughter DeAnna Mancini said. "He's singing in heaven now."