Tom Mayberry introduced me to his friend and former pastor, Todd Decker. In February of 2011, Todd had just started a new job as a chaplain at Freeman Hospital. The tornado bypassed Freeman, a mile from the devastated St. John's. On Sunday night, Freeman’s doctors and nurses had to manage the bulk of the emergency cases from Joplin — including injured and dying patients and staff from St. John's itself.
The Sunday of the tornado, Todd was at his temporary lodgings, a rented duplex on 18th and Connecticut, built by Mayberry Construction, but owned by a different landlord. Todd's wife was staying with his in-laws in Arkansas; his own house in Arkansas was listed for sale. Todd was watching a ball game on TV when he heard the sirens. He said, "By the time I realized we really had a problem, I could hear it coming. I had no time to do anything. I just went into the bathroom."
At the peak of the storm’s fury, Todd feared for his life. He phoned his wife. The tornado was so loud, he couldn't tell whether she had answered the phone. "I just told her, 'Honey, I love you.' I thought that might be my last word I would have to say to anybody."
The tornado seemed to last forever. But when it passed, the bathroom was intact. "I couldn't get out at first," said Todd. "But when I did force the door open, it started hailing. So I just went back into the bathroom and sat down. I was shaken." When the hail stopped he went out. "All that was left standing was two closets, and the bathroom I was in, and about a third of the brick wall in front. Everything else was gone." Later on, Todd told Tom Mayberry, "You built a good house. If it wasn’t for that brick wall, I’d probably be dead."
Todd was lucky — most of his possessions were still in Arkansas with his wife. "I didn’t lose that stuff that so many people did — the pictures, the things you’re attached to. Everything I had in the house was stuff I had just bought. I could care less about it."
There were 11 people killed within two blocks of where Todd was staying.
Coming out of the shattered house, Todd said, "I immediately thought about my neighbor, Helen. She was about 85 years old. This whole area was full of old people, like a retirement village. It was quiet at night." Todd had seen Helen coming home from church around 5. "I could hear her crying," he said. Helen was in her bathroom. The room had been destroyed, but Helen only had minor injuries. Todd got her out, flagged down a passing vehicle, and asked them to take Helen somewhere. "I learned later that they actually took her home with them for three days," he told me.
"Looking around, I thought: ‘Thousands of people are dead,’" said Todd. "My eyes saw it, but I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t take it in." Todd and another man went house to house nearby to make sure people were okay. Then he walked and hitchhiked to his job at Freeman Hospital. "It took me a couple hours to make my way there. And I passed a lot of suffering on the way. But I had to make a decision, and I decided this was where I needed to be."
Freeman staff had first learned of the catastrophe when a man walked into the emergency room holding his intestines in his arms. The charge nurse, Leslie Allen, asked what happened, and the man said, "It’s the tornado." Allen looked behind him, and as far as she could see, people were walking up the hill to the emergency department. By the time Decker got to the hospital, he said, "we had 500 people in triage and 1,000 people in the waiting area. And some of the injuries were pretty horrific." The first patient — the man who had been eviscerated — died soon after walking in the door.
The chaplain’s job was overwhelming. Todd said, "We had people who were dead on arrival or who died here. And so we worked to provide some privacy, some dignity, and some sanctity to those people and to those families. People began to show up looking for their children, their mom and dad, their relatives. And we would try to find people for people. But it was just too difficult."
Todd and the one other chaplain on duty decided to split up and talk to people one at a time. "I was back in the trauma bay trying to make sure that the people who were most critically ill were being prayed for, and that if there was anyone we could find to be with them, that we made that happen," he said. Two young Roman Catholic priests from a nearby town showed up to help, dressed in their clerical garb. "I’m not Catholic," said Todd. "So I told them, you guys walk through the crowd, and the Catholic faithful will seek you out and will ask for your support. They spent hours here that night. So that was a huge help, knowing that our Catholic population was being served — especially since our Catholic hospital had been hit." In the weeks to come, chaplains from hospitals in other cities would come to help with the crush of work, as well as several military chaplains.
Tom Mayberry called Decker and offered him another duplex, putting Decker at the head of a 50-person waiting list. Todd lived there with his wife until their house in Arkansas sold on July 1. They rushed to find another house — "I didn’t want to store my stuff," he said. "Eighteen of the 20 that we looked at were already sold. But we found another house, and we got moved in the first of August."