Search for tornado's missing finds few amid debris

Ashley Clark salvages items from a family member's devastated Joplin, Mo. home Wednesday, May 25, 2011. An EF-5 tornado tore through much of the city Sunday, damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses and killing at least 122 people. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
May 26, 2011 8:29:13 PM PDT
Mike Hare has scoured the ravaged neighborhood where his 16-year-old son Lantz was seen last. He's called hospitals from Dallas to Kansas City and taken dozens of calls offering advice, prayers and hopeful tips.

None of the calls came from Lantz. None offered any hope he might still be alive.

Hare has been looking for his son since Sunday, when much of the southwest Missouri city of Joplin was leveled by the deadliest single tornado since the National Weather Service started keeping records.

"We know he's hurt somewhere," Hare said Wednesday, his voice breaking. "We just can't sit and keep calling. You've got to be moving."

Hare is among an increasingly desperate group of people in Joplin pleading for help in tracking down one of the dwindling number of people still missing in the wake of Sunday's storm. They're scrawling signs in wreckage, calling in by the hundreds to local radio stations and posting on the Internet. They are inspiring city officials to continue search and rescue efforts: there is no talk yet of recovery.

On Thursday, the state said 232 people are still considered "unaccounted for" in Joplin, and that some of those are among the 126 people killed by the storm. Others are believed to be alive, but have left the area or have been unable to reunite with family and friends since the storm.

"Our goal is to get that number to zero," said Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety. "We will dedicate as much state resources as needed around the clock to ensure those family who have loved ones that they cannot find are connected."

The state released a list of names, and urged those who are still alive to check in with authorities.

"I am hopeful," Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles said Wednesday. "We've had stories from earthquakes and tsunamis and other disasters of people being found two or three weeks later, and we are hopeful we'll have a story like that to tell."

Randles and others leading the search effort say it's impossible to know exactly how many people are truly missing, since many may have simply left the area without getting in touch with their families. They believe most will be OK.

Amid that confusion, away from formal grid searches in the debris fields, children are looking for their parents and friends are searching for neighbors in any way they can.

With erratic cell phone service throughout Joplin and travel hindered by damaged cars and blocked streets, many residents have turned to local radio stations as a hub of information, sifting through around-the-clock reports of missing family members.

The Zimmer Radio Group, which operates seven radio stations in Joplin, abandoned its various music formats for 24-hour tornado coverage starting late Sunday afternoon. Newscaster Chad Elliot, whose home was destroyed, slept in his office when he wasn't on the air. His dog Rusty barked loudly behind a closed door.

"I thought we were going to do a normal severe weather broadcast," he said. "Obviously, that's not the case."

Calls flowed in -- hundreds of them -- from people looking for displaced loved ones, or calling in to say they were OK. By Wednesday, reports of missing friends and relatives were decreasing, replaced by updates of successful, tearful reunions.

"Folks wondering about Larry Allen, who was living near the Stained Glass Theater, he is fine," an announcer said Wednesday afternoon. "He's staying with friends."

Another listener reported, "I want everyone to know that Alice DuBois, 94 years old, is alive and well. We hadn't heard from her until yesterday afternoon. We thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers."

Pleas were rampant on social networks.

"This little boy was taken to Memorial Hall," one poster wrote next to a picture posted on KRGZ-FM's Facebook page. "His name is David and all he know's is that his mother's name is Crystal and his brother is Zachary. He was airlifted to Tulsa. Please help find his mom."

Other cries for help were low-tech: A tornado-battered pickup truck was spray-painted with the message, "Looking 4 Zachary Williams Age 12," along with a phone number.

At the Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University, a steady stream of people visited a table where Bill Benson took down the names of people for a "safe and well" database. Some people entered their names; others hoped to find the name of their loved ones in the database.

Benson has seen parents looking for missing children, saying "we had one where a 17-month-old infant was lost." He contacted police and had not heard if the child was found. But more people have come to Benson searching for seniors -- more than 100 were listed as missing Wednesday.

At Freeman Hospital, Karen Mitchell waited Wednesday hoping for word on her missing son, Robert Bateson, or her grandson, Abe Khoury. Khoury was found and taken to Freeman, where he was in critical condition. But Mitchell and her family continued to search for Bateson.

When she arrived in Joplin on Tuesday, Mitchell walked through the wreckage of her son's apartment building. She recognized his mattress sitting in a pile. Her family continued to post Bateson's information online. She prayed for a miracle.

"I am waiting on God to tell me where he's at," she said. "God is going to take him to me."

Kathy Watson, a marketing team member and front desk volunteer at Freeman, said the hospital was deluged with calls and visits from searchers, sometimes in vain.

"You want to be able to say, `Not only do we have your loved one, but they're fine,' but you can't say that," Watson said.

The evening of the tornado, Lantz Hare was driving with a friend who said the two tried to take cover in the parking lot of a grocery store. The tornado shattered the windows and crumpled the car, and Mike Hare found Lantz's backpack in the wreckage.

He said he would keep searching until he found his son, dead or alive.

"If you look at the ground, life will pass you by," he said. "I won't let life pass me by."

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