JOPLIN, Mo. – Huddled with a group of approximately 20 people in a convenience store cooler as an EF4 tornado packing near 200 mile-per-hour winds destroyed every thing around them, Brennan Stebbins thought to himself, "I didn't think I was going to die this young."
Stebbins, a 23-year-old resident of neighboring Carl Junction, Mo., was not one of the 116 confirmed deaths from the May 22 tornado that ripped a destructive path through the heart of Joplin, Mo., a growing town of 50,500 residents located approximately 70 miles southwest of Springfield, Mo.
Stebbins' friend, Isaac Duncan, recorded the experience of taking shelter in the cooler with a video camera and posted the chilling footage on YouTube. The video, which has been viewed more than 300,000 times in less than 24 hours, has been featured on several national news networks including CNN, ABC News and NBC News, and Duncan was interviewed on CNN Monday morning.
In the video - which is dark because the power and lights were out - you can hear panic and fear in the voices of those taking shelter, as a woman screams, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus" and others are praying and telling each other, "I love you." About six children were in the group of 20 survivors, and can be heard screaming and crying in fear.
As the tornado passed, the victims stacked cases of beer as a make-shift ladder to be able to climb out of the cooler, which Stebbins measured approximately eight-feet tall and 8- or 10-feet wide. He said a shelving rack in the cooler kept the top of the metal box from caving in, as the suction from the storm buckled the walls of the structure.
As he escaped the cooler, Stebbins said the convenience store was left to rubble along with other homes and buildings in the area.
"There just wasn't a single thing left standing," he said.
Search and rescue efforts were under way Monday despite storms that dumped heavy rain on the damaged region. Estimates of the injured from the storm number more than 1,000, and there is massive damage to St. John's Regional Medical Center, one of the city's two hospitals, as well as Joplin High School, which serves more than 2,000 students, several other school buildings, and the major retail district along Range Line Road, which runs north and south through Joplin. Businesses damaged along Range Line include a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Home Depot, Walgreens, Academy Sports and Outdoors as well as several restaurants and other stores.
"The heart of Joplin has been completely demolished"
A day after graduating from college at nearby Missouri Southern State University, Brennan Stebbins was enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon driving around Joplin, Mo., listening to the Kansas City Royals baseball game on the radio.
Then, a bulletin came over the radio that a tornado had touched down and was heading east toward Range Line and toward Duquesne Road, where Stebbins, Duncan and their friend, Corey Waterman, were driving in their car.
"We kept heading south to get away from it," said Stebbins, who recently served as editor of The Chart, the student newspaper at MSSU. "By the time we got to the gas station people were running inside so we got out. To the west the sky was just completely black, and the wind was really whipping and rain and hail were getting thick. I didn't even have time to lock my car, it was a dead sprint to the door."
The three friends took shelter in a Fastrip convenience store at the intersection of 20th Street and Duquesne Road, located in a neighborhood area on the eastern edge of Joplin. When they ran into the store, Stebbins said some people were looking out the windows at the storm, while others gathered in the back area to take shelter.
"Someone yelled to get to the back of the store so we all got back there and got down on the floor," he said. "Then you could hear the building starting to come apart and the pumps being blown away. When the windows blew out someone suggested we all get into the cooler so we all piled in... We just all crammed into it and closed the door."
When Stebbins and the rest of those who took shelter in the cooler emerged after the storm, he said the gas station was a pile of rubble on top of the cooler. He said most, if not all, of the gas pumps were gone. His car was damaged, with the rest, in the parking lot.
Stebbins said no one suffered major injuries inside the cooler other than cuts from broken glass. He said everyone was in shock as they looked around at the damage in the area.
"There was just nothing left as far as you could see," said Stebbins.
The three men left the scene on foot, walking west on 20th Street toward Range Line, the intersection where much of the major damage to the retail district took place.
While walking, they were fortunate to find the fathers of Duncan and Waterman, who picked them up and took Stebbins to check on his grandmother, who lived near the heavily-damaged area by Joplin High School at 20th Street and Indiana St. Her home was destroyed by the storm, but she was not injured.
Stebbins said the damage throughout the affected area in Joplin was "surreal."
"The smell of gasoline and natural gas in the air, and smoke on the horizon," he said. "The damage was much more extensive than we thought when we were in the cooler.
"It is one of those things where you just never imagine that it could happen like this. The heart of Joplin has been completely demolished."