JOPLIN, Mo. — Under clear blue skies and the evening sun, newly-married couple Aaron and Brooke McKenzie Cox walked out of the historic United Methodist Church in downtown Joplin to a shower of rose petals and wild applause.
Their wedding offered a glimmer of hope in what has been a dark week of death and devastation for the city of Joplin in what now has been deemed the deadliest U.S. tornado in more than six decades.
The May 22 EF5 tornado has claimed 142 lives, injured hundreds more and damaged or destroyed 8,000 structures in this community of more than 50,000 residents. And six days after the tornado threw a knockout punch to their hometown, the wedding of Aaron and McKenzie Cox offered a unique time to celebrate for family, friends and the community needing something positive to cling to amid all the sadness. It was the first wedding in Joplin since the tornado brought the city, which serves as a hub for a four-state region and its more than 150,000 residents, to its knees. And for Aaron Cox and Brooke McKenzie Watson, it was a miracle that the wedding took place. Even though several family members lived in the tornado’s destructive path, none were seriously injured, or worse, killed. McKenzie’s younger brother, Jay, lived at an apartment complex at the intersection of 20th Street and Connecticut Ave., which now has every building reduced to rubble by the storm. Jay was not home at the time the tornado hit. Aaron’s sister and husband were home when the tornado threw a knockout punch in their neighborhood in the heart of Joplin and the storm’s path. Their home suffered massive damage and is considered a total loss. After the tornado passed, Aaron and McKenzie went to the neighborhood were his sister’s home once stood, but couldn’t recognize it or any of the nearby structures because the area looked “like a war zone.” "On the far south side of town, it wasn't that bad," Aaron told the CBS Early Show. "I mean, it got a lot of hail, a lot of bad winds, but nothing like the rest of the town. So, when we came out of the basement and tried to get a hold of my sister, we couldn't get a call through. So we decided just to hop in the car, go see if we could find her, and I grabbed my video camera. "I figured I'd get some video of some downed trees or something. We had no idea how bad it was. But by the time we started driving, we couldn't get very far. We had to abandon the car, and then every subsequent block we kept going, it got worse and worse, and you realized, obviously, it was a lot more than downed trees. You know, the entire city was leveled." Cox's sister's block was in ruins -- and he ran by her house at first. "I actually overshot it by a block," he recalled. "The house across the street from her was on fire. Really on fire, ablaze. And so, I was just trying to get past that house, and so by the time I got to the next block, the people there told me that it was 21st and Kentucky, which was one block too far. So I had to turn back around. And then I really had to concentrate to realize that the house I was looking at was my sister's house. It was unrecognizable." When Aaron and Brooke eventually found his sister’s home, they searched frantically inside for them. They were nowhere to be found. Aaron recorded the search with his video camera. In the video, you can hear Aaron screaming out the names of his sister, brother-in-law and their pet, moving the camera in every direction looking for any signs of life. They ran into residents, who look dazed by what just happened, and made sure they are OK. While running up and down the streets in the disaster area, McKenzie found a young child lying dead in the street. She soon called her mother, who is a nurse, in tears. McKenzie felt helpless, her own nursing training too late to save the young boy. Eventually, Aaron and McKenzie were able to get cell phone service and made contact with his sister and brother-in-law, and McKenzie’s brother and learned they were all OK and safe. Then, as they walked south down Main Street, in an area that was also hit hard by the tornado, they realized they were standing in front of the alteration shop where McKenzie’s wedding dress was stored for final minute details. Curious to see if her dress survived the storm, the bride-to-be crawled through a broken glass window in the store and came out with her dress in perfect condition, still enclosed in the protective bag. She said it was the only dress that did not suffer damage or was not completely destroyed by the storm. Realizing that their family who were affected by the storm was OK, and that even the dress, church and reception hall were not affected by the tornado, Aaron and McKenzie were urged by family and friends to not postpone their nuptials. The couple, which met in high school in Joplin and dated throughout college, had waited too long to tie the knot to let a tornado keep them from their big day. Plus, as the pastor who led the service said, “it is a sign from God that you two were to get married today, and that you needed to provide this happy moment for a community that needs to smile.” Aaron and McKenzie’s story has gained widespread national media attention. Aaron and his sister were interviewed and featured with Anderson Cooper on CNN, and their wedding received attention by the CBS Early Show. Three national television crews were on hand to film the service, as well as print and web media. A silver Rolls Royce waited for the new couple when they left the church after the ceremony, a surprise considering the car they had planned on using was no where to be found. After they entered the car, the TV crews and cameramen surrounded the vehicle, trying to get a glimpse of the happy couple and maybe that special kiss. At the reception, hearts were heavy as the bridal party said a special prayer for those affected by the tornado. Aaron, who will begin his professional broadcasting career this summer as the radio voice of the Idaho Falls Chukars of the Kansas City Royals baseball farm system, talked about whether or not it was appropriate for the wedding to take place Saturday night, but that he was urged by several loved ones, church family and friends to go ahead with the ceremony. “We realized Joplin needed something to be happy about,” Aaron said during his speech to the reception crowd. And then, it was announced that the wedding couple wanted to do something special for the tornado victims and their hometown. Instead of using the dollar dance money for their honeymoon, ever dollar raised from the wedding tradition would go to help tornado relief efforts. And the bride and groom danced for a very long time into the night.