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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 12:18 am | Fair 52º


Robin Montz: How Former Santa Barbarans Survived the Joplin Tornado

Newlyweds count their blessings after being caught off guard and taking cover

[Noozhawk’s note: Robin Montz and Barbara Sanchez, former longtime employees of the Santa Barbara School District, now reside in Neosho, Mo. After the death of his wife last year, Robin found Barbara, and they have twice exchanged marriage vows in the past three months — first in Santa Barbara on Feb. 12, then as he relates in this report.]

Barbara and I were married last Saturday, May 21, on a glorious sunny day. We had a wonderful time with friends and family, including my son, Stephen, and his wife, Dixie, who were here from Atlanta.

Barbara Sanchez and Robin Montz were united in marriage on May 21 by friend Clement Graham at the home of Jim and Cheral Hunter in Carthage, Mo.
Barbara Sanchez and Robin Montz were united in marriage on May 21 by friend Clement Graham at the home of Jim and Cheral Hunter in Carthage, Mo. (Montz family photo)

On Sunday, Barbara and I went to church and enjoyed the lovely sunny day lounging in our backyard, watching the birds at the feeder and feeling the gentle breezes. It was so nice that I never thought to look at the weather forecast, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

I decided it would be nice to take Steve and Dixie out to dinner, so we got in Steve’s truck and headed for Joplin to go to a wonderful little Mexican restaurant. We arrived as a few drops of rain began to fall, entered the restaurant, ordered our drinks and started to eat the chips and salsa. Then the waiters and management began talking very fast in Spanish, running back and forth, and getting very excited. They ultimately called to us and a few others in the place to head out to a neighboring house that had a basement as a tornado warning had been issued.

As we got up, the lights all went out. We used our cell phones as flashlights as we headed toward the front door. Then everyone turned around and began running toward the back, away from the front. The four of us were bringing up the rear of the procession when the glass front door blew out and glass pieces rained down on us. We turned a corner and ran into a storage room that had some tables stacked against the concrete block wall. Steve yelled for us to duck under the tables, which we did. Dixie was in the back corner, Barbara next to her, me next and Steve was to my left. We were face down with our heads up against the block wall.

It turned out that we were in the absolute center of the largest tornado in history to hit Missouri. The building began to shake, and the sound of the tornado was so loud we couldn’t hear anything else. We hung on to one another as the roof blew off and the block wall began to shift and concrete blocks began falling on top of the tables we were under. Ceiling joists, wire, cable, insulation and all sorts of other building materials rained down on us. The girls felt their tables begin to tip downward from the weight of the falling wall, and the wall itself began to tip over farther.

Barbara began counting — she says it is a sort of automatic thing she does when something awful happens — and later determined that we were shaking and rolling for a full minute. It seemed much longer and much scarier. Steve and I, being closer to the outside, were pulled up and levitated a few inches into the storm but were kept from flying away by the tables and debris. It was one of the most frightening minutes of my life. We thought we were going to die, but, as Barbara said, at least we were going together.

The tornado moved on down the street, leaving total destruction in its wake. I was able, finally, to turn around in the small space we were in and climb out of a hole in the debris. Steve got out next, then Barbara and Dixie. We had a few bruises and scrapes, but were basically OK.

We climbed down a wall and out onto the parking lot, where all we could see was total destruction. By this time we were soaking wet. We had no coats and it was very windy, so we all got extremely chilled and cold. We used a few small bar towels to cover our heads, and Barbara found some plastic to drape around her shoulders to try to stay a little bit warm.

I began to try to find Steve and Dixie’s truck, but it had disappeared. Steve and Dixie walked a couple of blocks each way, and there was no sign of the vehicle. I am writing this on Tuesday morning, and they are up in Joplin trying to find the wreckage of their truck so they can prove to the insurance company that it was totaled.

Steve and Dixie’s truck was nowhere to be found after the tornado, but later surfaced amid the rubble.
Steve and Dixie’s truck was nowhere to be found after the tornado, but later surfaced amid the rubble.

As I was wandering around I saw a nearby van with two people in it. I went over with the intent of helping them and saw that they were dead. They were battered to death, and there was blood all over them. We’re fairly certain that their car had been picked up, flipped around and smashed into the pavement. I’m still carrying that vision around in my head.

Several other folks in the restaurant were injured — one with a broken leg, another with internal injuries. We helped them get to a nearby ambulance. Another young couple came by whose house had been destroyed. They were carrying a small girl and a newborn baby, and holding on to their totally freaked-out Labrador retriever. They stayed in the little corner of the restaurant that was still standing for a little while, and then moved on. We stayed for a time also, and then began thinking about how we could get back to Neosho.

So we started walking toward 32nd Street, about a mile down Main Street, because we could see moving traffic there. We had to step over downed power lines, phone and cable lines, tree trunks, construction debris, telephone poles and many other obstacles, and wade through water that was several inches deep. We went into a partially destroyed McDonald’s for a short time and got some water to drink and tried to warm up, but all we could do was shake from the stress, the cold and probably a little shock.

We decided to walk out and to try to find a land-line phone, as all the cell towers had been destroyed. We walked to 32nd Street, and Steve found an exchanger for an emergency generator that was throwing off a bunch of heat, so we stood there for a while to try to get warm.

About that time, a couple who lived in the neighborhood walked by. We started talking to them, telling them what we had experienced, and they offered to take us back to their home and get us warm. We walked two or three blocks to their undamaged home, where they put coats on us and got us warmed up. Then the man offered to drive us to Neosho. What an angel! He took us right to our house, where we jumped in the showers and tried to wash off the grit and debris that was all over our bodies.

It was about then that the seriousness of the experience began to sink in. We have all been experiencing a little post-traumatic stress over the past couple of days.

We have to laugh, however. This has been one hell of a honeymoon!

— Robin Montz is a former Santa Barbara School District social studies teacher.

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