Innocence Lost

By Sarah Sticklen

For those readers who do not know me, I graduated from Joplin High School on May 22, 2011, the day the “Joplin tornado” ripped through my hometown. I started compiling my recollections the summer of 2014, when I read an article on insomnia suggesting I write down the thoughts and fears that kept me up most nights. Then, in the fall of 2017, I looked back at the summer of 2011 with renewed eyes when assigned to write a final paper my 3L year at the University of Missouri School of Law on what led me to law school. Most of this article comes from my final paper submission for the class.

The reality of tragedy is that it cuts deep, leaving massive, gaping scars that never seem to heal over time. The reality is that all of the so-called “good” that comes after tragic events is miniscule compared to the emotional wounds and injuries impairing those affected.

No one told me that after the tornado, I would never again feel safe. No one explained to me that every day I would live after Will’s body was found, I would be in constant fear of death. I am living each day not in the moment, as they say happens after tragedy, but in fear of losing someone else I love. I haven’t been able to sleep. I haven’t been able to escape the thoughts that death is imminent and inevitable. I have not learned anything from this experience, except to always be expecting the call that someone I know has died. The reality is that after tragedy strikes, you are a fraction of the person you were hours before, and life is a constant struggle to climb back to that safe, happy place you once resided.

There the three of us were—me, Griffin, and Will—sitting by Konnor’s pool at her graduation party, joking about how we were still alive. The world was supposed to end that day, or something to that effect, as proclaimed by either an ancient civilization or an obscure cult, I’m guessing. I thought everyone’s Facebook statuses about the “end of the world” were referring to the intense rainstorm the day before, but apparently that Saturday was the day the world would end. Yet, the day was beautiful, and we were yelling to the universe, “I’m still here! Joke’s on you!” How are you supposed to know that you’re enjoying your last day on earth?

Taken at Konnor’s graduation party on 5-21-11

Everything was as it should be. I was heading to the University of Chicago, my top choice school, in the fall. My friends and I were finished with high school and all its petty drama, and ready to make our places in the world. We had the whole summer planned, the summer before we left for college. We were going to have all-night Harry Potter movie marathons before the Deathly Hallows Part 2 movie came out in July. Will and Griffin were going to drive to Kansas City for one of my softball tournaments and we could go shopping at The Plaza. We had been making plans for the summer since the beginning of May, and the night before graduation, Will and I meticulously planned out the next few carefree months. At some point that night, my friend Corey whipped my leg with a wet towel from the swimming pool, and I had a nasty mark on my leg just in time for graduation pictures.

I was happy. Life was carefree and held so much promise.

Everyone always says that everything happens for a reason. But what is the reason for being at a Pizza Hut for dinner on a Sunday evening and having no choice but to hold a safety room door shut for a bunch of strangers as a storm rips through the restaurant? What is the reason for being at home with your parents as a deadly storm rips through your town, and then waking up in a hospital and learning that both your parents were killed in the storm? Or for making a trip to Wal-Mart only to be herded to the back of the store for “safety” as debris hits and kills the two strangers seeking safety on either side of you? Or taking your family out for ice cream, only to return to your home promptly and hide in your bath tub as your entire apartment complex collapses around you? What is the reason for driving home from your high school graduation and being ripped from your car by an F-5 tornado?

Sunday morning, May 22, 2011, was absolutely beautiful. I thought it was going to storm that day, but the sky was a gorgeous shade of blue, perfect for my graduation from Joplin High School. My family took photos in our front yard. My parents, three younger siblings, and two sets of grandparents drove across town to Missouri Southern State University, where the ceremony was held. As we pulled up to the light on 332nd and Main, we saw Will in his Hummer wearing his signature Ray Ban aviators, also heading to graduation. He gave us a big smile. He was the first person I saw when my parents dropped me off at the gym; he helped me put my robe on which was an ordeal because I had to redo my hair, and I was dreading standing in line for the next hour and then listening to dumb speeches. I just wanted it to be nighttime already, when I could change into yoga pants and head to Project Graduation, and be overly competitive in 4-on-4 volleyball and poker all night. Should I take my contacts out and change into my glasses, though? My heels hurt my feet.

During the ceremony a weird thing happened — I kept hearing what I thought was thunder outside, but when we left the gym, the sky was still perfectly sunny. Did I have some sort of premonition?

Following the ceremony, I stood in line with the other students to get my diploma, but cut to the front to stand by my friends Keegan and Griffin, and also because I am an extremely impatient person. Griffin’s mom, Linda, wanted to take a picture of us while waiting in line. “Where’s Will?” she asked. We looked around, saw him towards the back of his alphabetical line, and laughed. “He’s too nice to cut in line like we did.”

Keegan, Griffin, and me after graduation on May 22, 2011.

Ms. Day, my counselor, saw me immediately and handed me my diploma. Everything was a rush. What can you expect when trying to hand out 450+ diplomas? There was a bigger pressure to move things along, also. Tornado sirens were sounding outside. I walked around the gym twice before I found my dad, who had come inside to look for me. We walked quickly to our car, not stopping to take photos.

My dad is a freak about weather, and he put the radar station on as we jumped in our car, my brothers and one set of grandparents following us in their rental car. My dad interrupted my personal recapping of the ceremony to turn up the radar and listen intently. There was a slow-moving funnel in Riverton, Kansas, about 20 miles away from Joplin. He debated stopping at his office on 7th Street to wait until the storm passed, but my grandparents had taken a different route home, and he did not want to split up. We continued down Main St., and as we neared 32nd and Main, a few blocks from my house, a huge hailstone came out of nowhere and smacked our front window. My mom frantically called my grandfather and told him to hurry home; they had stopped under a Sonic awning when they were hit with hail. For whatever reason, a sense of urgency overtook my parents. My dad cut through a parking lot and sped home. As we pulled into the garage, it started hailing, and my mom was calling my grandfather again to see where he and my brothers were.

My grandparents and my brothers returned home, and my mom brought down wine, cheese, candles, and her guitar so that we could all enjoy our time in the basement. I went upstairs to my bedroom to change clothes and take out my contacts. From the window in my room, I can see St. John’s Hospital. If I had looked outside that very moment, I may have seen the tornado blow right through the hospital and all the massive trees surrounding it. Had the storm taken a different route, I would have seen the funnel heading straight for my house.

Maybe fifteen minutes after we returned home, the texts started pouring in. The first were that Academy and Wal-Mart were destroyed, which my family took to mean that the signs must have been blown away from the tornado. Then, people started posting on Facebook. “St. John’s was destroyed.” Ok, maybe a couple of windows were knocked out. “My house is gone.” Things got a bit more real. Then the “Are you ok?” texts. I sent those out to all my friends, too. I do not think I could fathom the idea of death or any serious injuries. I merely meant, “Is your house ok? Is your car ok? Are all of your material items safe and sound?”  Before we turned on the radio in our car and realized the severity of the storm, I was still wondering if we would be able to host Project Graduation without power. I heard back from everyone except Will that night, but his home was not hit by the tornado, his phone signal must not be working or something.

The next 24 hours that passed are a blur, much like the next few months are now to me. All the radio stations in Joplin became hotlines for people to call, searching for missing loved ones. My dad would sit in his car listening in agony to the calls until my mom forced him to quit. I started receiving Facebook messages from friends and family across the country, wondering if I was ok. It was impossible to reach anyone because the phone lines that weren’t knocked down were extremely busy. We tried to drive to one of the affected neighborhoods where our family friends were, but power lines were down everywhere, and traffic was extremely backed up. Rescue vehicles were everywhere, and they required road space priority.

Sirens wailed across town until morning. My three younger siblings slept in my room. My youngest brother slept on the floor of my room every night that summer. Sometime that night, I received a text from Griffin about Will being caught in the storm in his car. In my head, I pictured him driving home on Range Line and getting in a fender-bender as drivers were distracted by the storm and traffic was backed up. I also assumed he was in the hospital. Around 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., a classmate of mine texted me and asked if I was on the search committee for Will. The search committee? What does that even mean?!

I ran downstairs to my parents’ room, and they were both on their laptops—the power had come back on (though most of Joplin wouldn’t have power for another month), and they appeared to never have gone to bed. How could they?

Usually rumors aren’t true, or you hope they aren’t. Rumors seem like far -fetched ideas, concocted to incite a great reaction from the audience of the gossip. I thought that someone had simply created the idea that Will’s body was missing–the thought that he had been sucked out of his Hummer by the tornado was absurd. Will was the most popular guy in our school. No, he was the most popular guy in our town. He was a YouTube sensation, not even just in Joplin. YouTube paid Will for making videos because he accumulated so many viewers.

A photo my mom took of Will and me at my graduation party on May 21, 2011.

Will was kind and friendly to everyone. He was inclusive, to the point of annoying those of us who were his closest friends because he could never ever exclude someone from our group. Will’s smile was contagious. He was goofy, yet mature and sophisticated. He was charismatic and intelligent and genuinely funny. He was a superb listener and a loyal friend, and he somehow knew how to say all the right things at the right times—or maybe he could just do no wrong in my eyes. Will was one of the best friends I have ever had.

My parents adored Will; he was always welcome at our house. My siblings looked up to him, emulating his style or his humor. I think the best and most dear compliment I will ever receive in my life was during the summer of 2013, when my dad came home and told me that Will’s mom said that she always considered me the female version of Will. This is either humorous or ironic, I do not know, but my parents always loved Will because they considered him the male version of me. In fact, he wrote in my senior yearbook “We are so much alike!” Maybe that’s why I took his death so hard, because it could have just as easily been me. I can only try to be as wonderful a person as Will was.

So why does someone so young, so pure, so talented, disappear? It cannot happen. It does not happen. My friends’ information is incorrect, I told myself.

But, somehow, the rumor was true. Griffin’s mom, Linda, had called my mom, and my parents were now members of a Facebook group dedicated to searching for Will’s body. His aunt seemed to be spearheading the searches. I was going to go search in the woods for the body of one of my best friends. What did I expect to find? What if I actually had found my dead friend’s body? How much more traumatic would this event have been? But in our minds, Will was alive, trapped under debris or transported to a hospital in another town where he had not been identified as Will Norton.

The morning after the storm, NBC contacted Coach Vanderhaar, one of my softball coaches and the chair of the TV Productions department at the high school. They wanted to interview a couple students outside the remnants of the high school that day. Because Coach V had filmed my college softball recruiting video, and I was constantly being interviewed by local news stations that year for various accolades (I peaked in high school), he thought I would do well in the interview. My dad and I ventured out of the house to pick up Evan, a friend and classmate of mine who also agreed to do the interview. We had to drive through back roads to reach Evan, because his neighborhood was destroyed, and he was waiting on the corner of a street for us next to a cop controlling traffic.

It took us maybe 45 minutes to an hour to get to the high school, normally a five-minute drive. It was near impossible to even realize where I was in a town I had spent my entire 17 years of life. Driving around rubble and debris to reach my school was devastating. How did people survive their homes caving in like that? The high school looked unreal. It did not help that a terrible thunderstorm was also blowing through Joplin. Every so often an intense lightening bolt would strike, worrying my father as we were outside standing in debris with a camera crew surrounding us. About half a mile down the road from where we were, a cop was struck with lightening and killed. The nightmare was never-ending.


Photos I took the day after the tornado.

Later that day, NBC called me to ask if they could interview my friends and me for a segment on Good Morning America. I texted a few of my friends, and about six showed up for the interview. My mom was a little put out that the crew did not film in our dining room or formal living room, but instead in our kitchen where my graduation decorations were still hanging up. I guess that was kind of the point.

Anderson Cooper came to Joplin, and he interviewed Will’s aunt and sister. There was no news about his miraculous re-appearance and recovery yet. There were search groups for him most mornings, and I was told that close friends drove to hospitals around the area to look for him. A couple other kids from my high school were missing as well. One was a boy I knew. He was a year behind me, on the football team, and had been in a few of my classes. His mom was the secretary at my siblings’ middle school. Eventually, he was found in a neighboring hospital, badly injured but alive. He woke up to news that both his parents had died in the storm. They were in their home, which collapsed on them as they were huddling in their closet for safety. Another boy, who I didn’t know, was in his car during the time of the storm. His body was identified in the morgue, a word frequently used during that time which I previously only associated with horror films. I don’t even watch the previews of horror movies, but I was living in one.

Friday night, my family and I drove up to Kansas City. My sister and I both had softball tournaments, and my dad was the coach of my sister’s team. My parents thought getting away from Joplin for a few days would be good for us. It was nice, I admit, to go out to dinner away from so much sadness and to pretend things were normal.

I woke up Saturday morning with a text from Keegan. They had found Will’s body. My parents knew when I ran into their room crying. Linda had texted my mom late that night, but my mom didn’t open the text; she said she just had this feeling. My mom and I drove back to Joplin that morning. We stopped at Starbucks on our way out of Kansas City, and saw that there was a donation box for the Joplin tornado victims. We told the barista that we were from Joplin. He asked if there was any news about the boy yet, and my mom broke down in tears. That was the reason we were driving home. The mystery is over, and the ending is horrible.

People kept telling me how sorry they were for my loss. Coach Vanderhaar had Will as one of his TV Productions students. Will was a star in that class, and he and Coach V were really close, so when Coach V told me he was sorry for my loss, that he knew how close Will and I were, I just about lost it. I still feel guilty for being so affected by Will’s death, even eight years later. I feel guilty because he was not my son or my brother; I don’t have any reason or room to keep grieving for him. I never felt I deserved to feel the pain I did after losing him.

Later that summer, Carol Stark, the editor-in-chief of our city’s newspaper, the Joplin Globe, asked me if I would be interested in helping with a feature spread they were doing on my graduating class and the tornado. The title of the feature was “Forever Bound,” as in we were forever bound to the tornado. I agreed to work on this project, which entailed interviewing my classmates for a feature article as well as video features that went online, co-writing a feature story, and writing my own editorial.

At the time, I remember thinking that this would help me “get over” the events of the summer, but it reality, it forced me to bottle them up, as I listened to my classmates’ more horrific accounts of their drives home from the graduation ceremony. Many of my classmates had been caught in the storm, and somehow survived. Will was the first one caught in the path of the storm, and I like to think he spent the next few minutes as our Guardian Angel.

I was one of the few graduates who was able to make it all the way back across town to get home. Had my family left graduation just five minutes later, we too would have been caught in the tornado. My friend Alayna was driving home from graduation with her sister. They stopped at a gas station when they realized a tornado was heading their way, but the gas station was locked—everyone had already filed into the freezer and locked the door behind them—so they ran back into their car and hoped for the best. When I interviewed Alayna for my article, she told me that she looked up as the funnel encircled them, and she could see the gas pumps being lifted up from the ground. Ashleigh and Paige were driving down 32nd St., near St. John’s, when they were caught in the tornado. Ashleigh’s car was completely destroyed, but somehow she and Paige were able to crawl out of her car alive. She and Paige walked to the hospital, arm in arm.

Max just missed the storm. He made it to the overpass on Connecticut, the cut-off line of the tornado, and watched the storm move past as he waited in his car. Urooge, her mom, and her baby sister were caught in the tornado near the high school. Urooge said her mom held her baby sister underneath her legs in the front seat of the car, and they ducked down, hoping they would survive. We actually did not know if Urooge had made it home safely, so a couple days after the tornado, my mom and I just knocked on the door of her home, unsure what we would find. No one answered. We walked around her house, to her basement, and Urooge, her mom, and her sisters were all there. I remember thinking at the time how normal that was—all of us who had basements that summer lived downstairs, too afraid to be on our main floors.

Keegan made it back home, only to turn around and go back into the destruction. Earlier that spring, he had received his EMT license, and here was his first task as a high school graduate—running makeshift triage systems and pulling people out of the rubble. Alex’s parents own a local mortuary, and he was thrown into the family business immediately after graduation, organizing funerals for all the recently deceased Joplin residents.

Everyone remarked on the quiet that followed the storm. Urooge told me that she and her mother were yelling for help, but no one came running out of their houses. At first, they thought it peculiar that no one was home, but then they realized people were actually trapped in their houses.

I have only read my article once since that summer, and I threw away all my notes from the interviews.

Now, here we are as adults in the year 2019, the year my youngest brother graduated from high school. Whether we care to admit this or not, we are now adults. Keegan and I graduated from law school and passed the Bar exam last year. Keegan got married this year, and his wife gave birth to a beautiful son last month—his middle name is William. Griffin is finishing his second year of medical school and preparing for his first board exam. I don’t keep in close contact with many others, but from what I see on social media, Alex is married, and so is Evan. I know Alayna was married my 1L year of law school, and also has a son. Ashleigh, too, is married, and is coaching cheer at Joplin High School. I am not married, and I have no kids, but my boyfriend and I do plan on welcoming a dog into our family this year.

My classmates have moved forward with their lives, started careers and families. We let tragedy shape us, but we did not let tragedy define us. Perhaps, for myself especially, this is a work in progress, but at least it is progress. I wish I had more insight to offer. I wish I could truthfully say how this tragedy made me a better person, but I’m not sure that it did anything more than make me even more neurotic and fearful, and give me something to talk about in interviews. Maybe I would have never left Missouri. Maybe I would have never come back. I guess I will never know how my life would have been different had graduation played out exactly as planned. Maybe accepting that fact, accepting that I can never alter the past, is the biggest obstacle I can overcome.

2 thoughts

  1. Your post put into perfect words my feelings still. Will was the greatest! I remember when he was found and that’s when it all hit him. Still haunts my mind to this day. I will focus on this though. We were made better, not by the tornado and his loss but that he touched us in a most profound way in such a short time. Thank you for your vulnerability. Prayers for you and your future.

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