JOPLIN, Missouri (Reuters) - There was little warning for Floyd Rockwell and his wife Donna when a mile-wide tornado dropped out of the dark sky on top of them.
The twister brought death and destruction with a fast fury that was hard to escape. It sent the elderly couple and about 100 fellow worshipers at a Baptist church running for shelter in a children’s Sunday school room.
Rockwell, 74, lay across his 71-year-old wife to try to protect her as the funnel cloud took off the church roof and sent cinder block walls tumbling down.
Rockwell saw at least one body pulled from the rubble but was told six more people didn’t survive. When the shaken couple tried to return to their home, they found it had also been lost to the storm. Rockwell is sure the couple would have died had they been there instead of at church.
“It’s gone,” he said. “We’re starting over.”
The Rockwells were just two of thousands who were sent scurrying for their lives on Sunday evening when the deadly tornado roared through the small Missouri city of Joplin.
They cried, prayed, huddled with loved ones and hoped the storm would pass them by. But when it was over at least 89 lay dead, 600 were injured, and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.
Survivors described riding out the storm in walk-in coolers in restaurants and convenience stores, hiding in bathtubs and closets, and some just literally running for their lives as the tornado bore down.
Some had traveled to Joplin to attend a high school graduation on Sunday. Others were enjoying a routine Sunday, shopping or visiting with friends and family.
At a Home Depot building supply store, employees and customers were herded to a room at the back of the store as the tornado approached, said 26-year-old cashier Rebecca Skinner. The group crouched on the floor and Skinner said she screamed in terror as the twister ripped off the roof and toppled steel beam ceiling rafters.
“There was this loud rumble and then there wasn’t and we started to crawl out from where we were,” Skinner said as she looked at the demolished store on Monday morning.
Donald and Helen Capps barely survived the destruction of their home, where they cowered in the first floor hallway.
“We covered our heads with a couple of pillows and the house collapsed around us,” Capps, 79, said.
Capps is a Korean War veteran and said the devastation reminded him of a war zone.
“Joplin looked like some of the battles I saw in Korea,” he said.
Brenna Burzinski took cover from the tornado in the laundry room of her second floor apartment with a boyfriend.
“Everything was being torn apart around us,” Burzinski said. “It was terrifying. We were sure we were going to die.”
Burzinski said she later saw bodies being pulled from her apartment building.
“I don’t know how we lived,” she said. “I don’t know how any of us lived.”
She dreads that next dark sky.
“I’ll be scared that every storm will be a tornado,” she said.
Writing by Carey Gillam, Editing by Jackie Frank