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Deadly Impact

Aired May 30, 2011 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight: the terrible power of tornadoes and the almost unimaginable impact of one, the one that hit Joplin, Missouri, the deadliest tornado on record, part of the deadliest tornado season in half-a-century.

It came. It stayed on the ground a very long. And when it left, it took a large part of Joplin with it.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. You need to relax if you want to stay with this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh. We got length.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, it's getting big, big, big, big.


COOPER: At least 126 people dead, dozens and dozens still missing, the actual number not known. Local officials believe upwards of 8,000 structures were either damaged or destroyed.

For those who survived, the scars will always be with them. Nearly two dozen people, including three young men, took cover at a convenience store inside a walk-in beer cooler. One turned on his iPhone as the twister struck. The video is dark, but the audio, the sounds tell the story.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're going to do it.


(SHOUTING) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.


COOPER: Imagine pushing open the door after that incredible experience.

Elsewhere in Joplin, one couple recorded the scene in their neighborhood moments after the tornado struck. Destruction all around them, homes on fire, they called out for the young man's sister and fiance.




COOPER: Of course, there's no end to the heartbreak, but no end to hope either. We met Tracy Presslor and her niece, Sara Norton. They were looking for Sara's brother Will, who was driving home from his high school graduation with his dad and was sucked out of the sunroof of his SUV as the tornado struck.





PRESSLOR: But we have faith, you know, that they're going to find him alive. You have to have hope. And you have to pray. And, if they don't, we just pray they find him.


COOPER: We're going to more on Will Norton's story tonight and also that of Lantz Hare, a 16-year-old who disappeared in the storm and whose father told me he would drive to every hospital he could, in hopes of finding his son.


MIKE HARE, FATHER OF MISSING TEEN: Until Lantzy is found, dead or alive, I have got to keep pushing. I have got to find him.


COOPER: There is so much sadness there.

Parts of Oklahoma were struck by tornadoes as well.

Frank Wood rushed his family into their storm shelter as the twister struck.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have got to get in now. It's coming right over us. We're right in its path.


COOPER: One beloved member of the Wood family, Roxie (ph) the dog, didn't make it into the shelter. We will find out what happened to her. and, believe me, you will want to hear that.

All of these stories in detail tonight, and witness the courage of people beset by both catastrophe and tragedy.

But we start at the beginning.


COOPER (voice-over): It's 5:40 on Sunday evening and a monster rakes across Joplin, Missouri.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Strong tornado.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, man. Get in the car. Get in the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) car. Get in the car. (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't film. I can't film.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it. I got it. I got it. I got it. I got it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stop, stop, stop, stop.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Move your head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it on video.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, stop. Stop the car.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. (INAUDIBLE) want to stay with it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, we got lightning.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, it's getting big, big, big, big.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it all on video. I got it all on video.

COOPER: As the twister roars toward this convenience store...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, they haven't yet. The sirens aren't going.

COOPER: ... frightened customers huddle in terror inside a dark refrigerated storeroom.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're good. We're good. We're good.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're going to do it.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love everyone. I love everyone, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I love all you guys. We're going to be OK.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Heavenly father. Thank you, Jesus.





COOPER: Amazingly, everyone inside survives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got debris on the ground right here. I got debris on the ground.

COOPER: The massive tornado believed to be three-quarters-of-a- mile-wide with winds exceeding 190 miles an hour rips a path of destruction four-miles-long right through the heart of the city. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God.

COOPER: By Monday morning, the devastation was clear, buildings on fire, entire neighborhoods wiped out. St. John's Medical Center, with 183 patients, took a direct hit. It was unclear if any of the patients were injured during the storm, but the twister hurled X-rays as far as 70 miles, heaved gurneys for blocks and smashed the building's glass facade.

BETHANY SCUTTI, WITNESS: The windows are blown out. There's debris hanging outside of the windows. Part of the roof (INAUDIBLE) missing. I mean, I'm standing behind the hospital and cinder block walls, brick walls are just crumbled.

COOPER: The tornado also struck Joplin High School just as seniors were finishing graduation ceremonies nearby. Parents and students escaped, but the school was demolished.

KERRY SACHETTA, PRINCIPAL, JOPLIN HIGH SCHOOL: I walked around as much as I could to see it. And it just looks like it's been bombed from the outside in. I mean, it's just -- it's terrible.

COOPER: The storm left cars and trucks on top of each other, this Wal-Mart now flattened, this Home Depot crushed. We don't know how many shoppers were inside the stores when the twister hit.

Thankfully, residents did have warning the storm was coming.

KEITH STAMMER, JOPLIN EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DIRECTOR: By our count, we had 17 minutes' time between we turned the sirens on and we had the first report of a strike.


COOPER: Seventeen minutes, not a lot of time with a monster about to rip through the soul of Joplin.

The level of destruction is overwhelming, not just block after block of rubble, but neighborhood after neighborhood flattened as far as the eye could see, even from the cockpit of a helicopter.

The first job for the first-responders was search-and-rescue. A handful of survivors were pulled from the rubble after the tornado hit, but the level of destruction was so extensive, they were prepared to find bodies.

I spent time with Missouri Task Force One, who was searching the Home Depot. Take a look.


COOPER (voice-over): At Joplin's Home Depot, the search-and- rescue personnel from Missouri Task Force One have not found anyone alive. They have only found bodies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything that we did yesterday were recoveries. And we completed seven of those.

COOPER (on camera): Are -- do you think there are more people still inside?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have some indication about canine alerts that, yes, we think we have some people underneath those slabs.

COOPER: Do you think may be alive still, or...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's unlikely that they're alive.

COOPER (voice-over): Doug Westhoff is the task force leader.

DOUG WESTHOFF, TASK FORCE LEADER: We had people coming by here yesterday who could recognize vehicles on the lot of their loved ones, knew, in all likelihood, that they were in the store or potentially underneath those slabs. And one gentleman knew that his son-in-law and his two grandkids were all, in likelihood, in that store. He waited around here through the entire day yesterday until we made those recoveries.

COOPER: Mortuary teams stand by to deal with the recovered bodies, but search-and-rescue personnel still hope to find someone alive.

DR. ELIODORA CHAMBERLAIN, MISSOURI TASK FORCE ONE: The dogs are trained to search for live people who are trapped or entombed beneath structures exactly like this. This is exactly the job that we have been called out to do.

COOPER: This task force has four dogs working in Joplin.

Dr. Eliodora Chamberlain's dog is named Katie (ph).

CHAMBERLAIN: They have got to be naked, because if you can see all this debris, and she has a collar or a vest on, they could get trapped. So, she's got to be naked.

COOPER (on camera): So you take all this off...


CHAMBERLAIN: I take all of this off when I actually send her in. And when I get her ready to go, I direct her into the area.

COOPER (voice-over): Many of the fatalities at the Home Depot have been found near the front of the store.

(on camera): They ran in. If they were -- if they were huddled near the front, that would have been the most dangerous spot for them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unfortunately, yes.

COOPER: Because that's where the walls would have collapsed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's where the walls came down. COOPER (voice-over): They have used heavy equipment to drill through the collapsed walls and check underneath. Then they push the walls out of the way.

(on camera): This is actually a wall of the Home Depot?


COOPER: And that was up and then it fell. And then you guys have picked up the whole wall?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What you got is a piece of concrete. You can see the insulation foam in between and then another layer of concrete on top of that.

COOPER: That's -- this is all insulation?


COOPER (voice-over): The walls may have collapsed, but, oddly, the tornado left many of the store shelves still standing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was a much more survivable environment here than it would have been to be at the front of the store, where those huge concrete walls came down onto them.

COOPER (on camera): Have you already been through this area?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Even with the front of the store being inaccessible, we were able to probe in from different places.

COOPER (voice-over): With so much heavy equipment needed, the search is sometimes frustratingly slow.

(on camera): How much are you working against the clock here in terms of the bad weather coming later today?

WESTHOFF: We're working against the clock all the time, both for the survivability profile and then the forecast for the -- for the bad weather.

COOPER: Right.

WESTHOFF: So, yes, we're always under the gun for that. We had to shelter our folks a few times yesterday just based on the lightning strikes and the hail and rain and that sort of stuff. It just makes it impossible to move around and do it safely.

COOPER (voice-over): Time is running out, and there's still so much to do.

Doug Westhoff is trying to be optimistic.

WESTHOFF: If the space is right, if the void is big enough, these people -- people can last many days like this. So, we're -- we're two to three days into this thing. And we're sort of the eternal optimists out here, Anderson. We're going to -- we're going to maintain hope just as long as we can. The reality is always creeping in the back of your brain that this is becoming less and less likely a rescue and more and more likely recoveries. But that's the reality of the world we work -- we live in.

COOPER (voice-over): By the end of the day, they find one trapped person, but, sadly, that person had already died. The searching continues, however, even here in Joplin amidst all this misery. Even here, there is still some hope.


COOPER: Well, yes, there is still hope in Joplin.

Up next, inside the search for the missing. Two teenagers vanished when the tornado hit, their families desperate for answers. We will bring you their stories ahead.

And later, caught on tape, a family scrambling for shelter as the tornado gets close, but where is the family dog?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's once-in-a-lifetime. You will probably never see this again. And it's moving fast.




COOPER: They got into the shelter. The dog didn't. You will want to see how this story ends, coming up.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is bad. Oh, my gosh. This is awful.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is -- look at that. That is destroyed, completely.


COOPER: Well, so many families in Joplin are still searching for loved ones and refuse to give up hope.

Will Norton is one young man who went missing in the tornado. He disappeared while driving home with his dad from his high school graduation. His dad, Mark, survived. He's seriously injured, though. The powerful winds of the twister pulled Will right up through the sunroof of their SUV, according to his dad. His family heard reports that a young man matching Will's description was taken to a local hospital and then moved to another hospital.

Well, Will's sister tracked down that hospital and visited the young man, but, sadly, it wasn't her brother.



PRESSLOR: It will be OK. It will be OK.

We got a lot of people looking, sweetie. A lot of people love him. They love him a lot.

COOPER (voice-over): For Will Norton's aunt Tracy and his sister Sara, the wait is at times too much to bear. Will was driving home from his high school graduation with his father, Mark, when the tornado struck.

PRESSLOR: Mark thought, if they could pull into the subdivision, they could maybe find a place to go. And they only got as far as that median when the tornado literally picked them up and then they got wrapped up in this stuff and then it was just a big mess. I don't know where that even came down.

COOPER (on camera): And what has he told you about what happened when the tornado hit?

PRESSLOR: He said that he remembers flipping and being airborne and just -- I just kept going.

COOPER (voice-over): Will was in the driver's seat. His father tried to grab him.

PRESSLOR: My brother grabbed him from across the seat to hold onto him. He remembers my nephew just started reciting Scripture, one verse after another, which my brother was a little shocked. But Will did it all the way up until when he went out the window.

COOPER (on camera): And what window did he go out of?

PRESSLOR: The sunroof. He went up.

COOPER: So, he was literally sucked out of...

PRESSLOR: He literally was pulled through the window while my brother held him, and he -- he was ripped out of his arms.

COOPER (voice-over): Mark was found in this ditch, badly injured, but alive. There's been no sign of Will.

NORTON: We have called hundreds and hundreds of hospitals, and, right now, we kind of just think that he's still out here somewhere waiting to be found.

COOPER: Will's family is urging people to search not just in Joplin, but in areas even farther away.

PRESSLOR: He could be anywhere between here and Springfield, Missouri. And we're not talking half-a-mile or a mile. We're talking miles. That storm could have taken him miles.

COOPER: Canine teams have been called, some trained to find the living, others to find the dead.

PRESSLOR: I think Sara's mom, I think she's having probably the toughest time, as any mama would have. You don't want to think that your kids are. It's really tough.

So we just ask for prayers for everybody, absolutely everybody. And people that are following it on Facebook, you know, we really love you. And just pray. We will pray for everybody. That's what we want.

It's going to be OK. We will find him, baby. We will find him. We will find him.

COOPER: Steve Lea, a retired battalion chief with the Joplin Fire Department, is working around the clock to find Will.

(on camera): So, they have searched the water now a couple times; they haven't found anything?

STEVE LEA, RETIRED BATTALION CHIEF: They have searched it. They're actually on their second search just to confirm it. And that's where we're at there.

COOPER: You're carrying a picture of Will.

LEA: Yes, I have a picture of Will here. In case I ever come up to somebody, I can actually just show them who we're looking for.

PRESSLOR: We have faith that they're going to find him alive. You have to have hope, and you have to pray. And if they don't, we just pray they find him.

We're a strong family. And we're going to be together, and we're going to find him. Someone is going to find him. A lot of people are looking, and there's a lot of families that are suffering, and we hope they find their loved ones too, alive.



COOPER: Although the unidentified young man in the hospital turned out not to be Will Norton, word about him spread and gave some hope to other families that their lost teenage boy might be alive.

The anguished family of 16-year-old Lantz Hare was one of them. Lantz was last seen with a friend who survived the storm. His mom said Lantz was ripped out of a car.

I had a chance to speak his Lantz's dad, Mike, in Joplin. He vowed to search until he found his son, alive or not.


COOPER: What was the last you knew about Lantz?

HARE: My youngest son called me. And it was maybe believe 10 minutes after the storm and they -- him and my ex-wife had been trying to get ahold of him over and over. And they couldn't. And they called me.

So I started calling him and still never got anything. I mean, I called it all last night. I called it today.

COOPER: You have still been calling his number?

HARE: Well, I can't stop. I don't know why. I do. I stayed up until like 2:00 last night, and that's all I did.

COOPER: You called the cell phone. Does it ring? Or...

HARE: Yes. It rang for the first day-and-a-half, and now it goes straight to voice-mail, but just in case he gets it, I want him to know his dad loves him.

COOPER: How are you holding up?

HARE: I got a lot of strong people around me to pick me up. That's about it.

COOPER: What has this been like for you? I mean, what...


HARE: Oh, I mean, how do you put into words that one of your two sons is missing? I mean, in something as catastrophic as all this, you don't know whether he's underneath a piece of wood or whether he's in a hospital or where he's at. And we have searched and searched and searched. So, I got to keep searching.

COOPER: Go to Springfield now and hope for the best.

HARE: I'm walking away from here and going to Springfield, Missouri, and then I'm going to Kansas City, and then I'm going to Wichita. And I will go somewhere else if I have to.

COOPER: You're going to check all the hospitals, everything you can?

HARE: Well, any that we have had reports that there's a kid that looks like Lantz.

I can't just sit here. And the hospitals tell us that it may not or may not be him, or, you know, that some of the reports are this, the bruising is so bad, that they really can't tell. Well, I can tell whether it's my son. I can tell. And I will tell.

COOPER: And you were asked to give DNA?

HARE: I was asked to give DNA today at Missouri Southern a little while ago. And that right there just said it in me, that there can't be no stopping. Until Lantzy is found, dead or alive, I have got to keep pushing. I have got to find him.

COOPER: It's important to hold onto hope?

HARE: Oh, my God, yes. If you don't have hope, what are you going to do? Look at all this.

If every -- every family out here didn't have hope that it's going to be better -- I have heard on the radio they're going to rebuild St. John's. That's hope. You have got to have hope. You have got to have God. You have got to have friends and family. You have got to have all of it combined to get you through this.

COOPER: Wow. Well, thank you for talking to us. I appreciate it.

HARE: Thank you.

COOPER: Stay strong.


COOPER: Sadly, after I spoke to Mike Hare that day, we learned that his son Lantz did not survive the tornado.

Up next: a brother desperate to find his sister minutes after the tornado hit.


A. COX: Sarah! Mike! Sarah! Mike!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sarah! Mike! Mike! Sarah!


COOPER: A frantic search, destruction everywhere they looked. See what happened to them coming up.

Plus, will talk with the people who went through this. They rode out the tornado almost in complete darkness inside a walk-in beer cooler at a convenience store.



COOPER: When you look at this, I mean, what -- what do you foresee? What does the future hold? MIKE WOOLSTON, MAYOR OF JOPLIN, MISSOURI: Well, this is just not the type of community that's going to let a little F-4 tornado kick us our ass, so we will rebuild and we will recover.


COOPER: You don't want to let -- this is not going to kick your ass?

WOOLSTON: No, it's not. We have been here before. It's been a long time since we have had one this bad. The destruction probably wasn't as bad as this, but we have been here before, and we rebuilt. And we will rebuild again this time.


COOPER: Mike Woolston, the mayor of Joplin, Missouri, the night after the tornado hit.

The resilience of the people of Joplin will no doubt get them through the difficult weeks and months and even years ahead.

As I mentioned at the top of the program, three quick-thinking young men took cover in a gas station convenience store as the tornado hit. They crammed into a walk-in beer cooler with about 20 or so other people.

One of them was Isaac Duncan (ph). He recorded the experience on his iPhone. It was almost completely dark inside the cooler, so you're not going to see much. But what's said by those fearing for their lives as the twister struck, well, tells you the whole story.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're going to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Oh, heavenly father. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.


COOPER: I spoke to Isaac Duncan and his two friends, Brennan Stebbins and Corey Waterman, about their incredible experience.


COOPER: You actually shot the video on your iPhone.

ISAAC DUNCAN, SHOT VIDEO ON IPHONE: Yes. COOPER: So, tell me what -- you go to the back of the storeroom. You know the storm is coming. You guys have pulled over to this convenience store and the front door was locked, right?

DUNCAN: Right.

Yes. Basically, we just had to pull over to the closest thing that we could find, which was this gas station. So, we got out, sprinted up to the door. And they had locked it just so the door wouldn't fling open. We pounded on the door and the clerk came up and unlocked it and we kind of just hurried back to the back of the building.

COOPER: And how many people were in there at the time?

DUNCAN: Probably about 18.

COOPER: And then how quickly was it that the storm hit?

DUNCAN: Within -- what would you say, probably a minute, the other person ran up to the door -- the clerk ran up, as the storm was getting really close, and unlocked the door for him and saved three people more that ran in. And then within 30 seconds of that, we were all down in the back and the glass was just blowing out of the entire front of the store.

COOPER: Brennan, what was it like for you? What did it sound like?

BRENNAN STEBBINS, TORNADO SURVIVOR: It sounded like 100 freight trains running really close to the building. And then it started to cave in and the first thing that I noticed was just the smell of gasoline outside, which, you know, that kind of freaked everybody out.

COOPER: And you were worried a fire might break out or something?

STEBBINS: Yes. And then, you know, towards the end, right when we decided to climb out, you could smell smoke outside, so we figured it was time to get away from the building at that point.

COOPER: And how long did it last for, Cory?

COREY WATERMAN, TORNADO SURVIVOR: Like, you know, three or four minutes of like, you know, bad, bad hail and debris. And, like, that second part where it hits is so -- the sound, the force of that is so loud, that, you know.

COOPER: What goes through your mind when you're experiencing something like that?

DUNCAN: Honestly, it was very surreal. Like, I had never felt anything like it. But it was almost like a weird calmness. Like, I didn't think I was going to go out in a tornado, but I think I'm probably going to, honestly.

COOPER: You were actually thinking that?

DUNCAN: Oh, yes. What happened is, we all sprinted into this little cooler and packed 20 people in it. So, I mean, there was not enough room.

COOPER: How big was the space?

DUNCAN: Ten feet by, probably, you know, seven feet. It wasn't big at all. And...

COOPER: So, you guys were all pushed up against each other?

DUNCAN: Oh, on top of each other.



WATERMAN: ... like beer...

COOPER: What was that?

WATERMAN: And all the shelves of all the items are falling on people and glass is breaking.

DUNCAN: Lots of beer was breaking, so everyone was getting cut by the glass. And, basically, the only thing that was remaining from the entire building was the cooler that we had jumped in.

And, you know, a big part of that was the clerk at the store. I mean, he was -- he -- not only did he run up and unlock the door, but he was the last person in to the -- to the refrigerator. I mean, he's a hero.

COOPER: And so, when you leave, and I mean, it's got to be surreal when you walk outside and you see what you've survived.

DUNCAN: Well, we sat there for probably 20 minutes, kind of deciding what to do because everything had collapsed on us. And so, Corey went to the back and a wall that had fallen down, he climbed out. I went next, and we pulled everyone out.

And when we got out to the side, you could see all the gas from the gas station was starting to run out, and you smelled electric fires. And so, everyone kind of like...

COOPER: And what made you decide to turn your iPhone on and start recording?

DUNCAN: I kind of just -- I just record everything. I don't know.

COOPER: If this is it, you might as well record it?

DUNCAN: Yes. Might as well.

COOPER: Well, I'm so glad you guys made it and great thinking to record it. So thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

DUNCAN: Thank you for having us.


COOPER: We showed you video at the top of the program. It's unlike anything we've ever seen before. A couple, Brook McKenzie Watson and Aaron Cox, emerging just moments after the Joplin tornado into what was their neighborhood in name only.







COOPER: They raced to the home of Aaron's sister, Sarah. A tree across the street was burning. Sarah's house was badly damaged.


COX: Sarah, Mike! Sarah, Mike!


COX: I'm going to check in the basement. Sarah, Mike!

WATSON: Mike, Sarah.

COX: You guys down here?


COX: Sis?

WATSON: Kirby?

COX: Sarah?


COX: They must have left.

WATSON: I think they're gone.

Kirby, Kirby.

COX: Kirby Jean. (WHISTLING)

WATSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with them, OK? All right, come on. They're not in the basement?

COX: No, I don't think so. Sarah, Mike!

WATSON: You went down there? You went down there?

COX: Yes, you can't really see anything, though.

WATSON: Maybe that's because they're not here.


COOPER: Kirby, by the way, is Sarah's cat. Brook and Aaron didn't find Sarah at home, but they did find Sarah. I spoke with her and with Aaron.


COOPER: Aaron, what was going through your head, I mean, when you grabbed the camera and first ran outside? Had you ever been through anything like this before?

COX: Nothing like this. I mean, I'm not sure anybody has, you know, with what they're saying about this kind of tornado. When we left the house, we had no idea it was like this, though. I took the camera, thinking there'd be some downed trees and stuff like that. But by the time we had to abandon the car because of the debris, you kind of realized the severity of everything.

And I already had the camera running, so we just kind of had it running as we went out searching. And every block you went in deeper, the worse and worse it got and the severity of it kind of set in.

COOPER: And Aaron, it's amazing. You even had trouble figuring out where you were, even though it's probably a neighborhood you know very well.

COX: Yes, I've lived in Joplin my entire life. You know, I've been to my sister's house, obviously, plenty of times. But everything was just so leveled, you had no idea where you were. I mean, even with the street signs gone, there was no land markers, no houses, no trees, no nothing. It was just completely -- completely barren. So we just kept having to ask people where we were. And even the people who lived on those streets were so dazed, they had a hard time telling us where we were. So it was -- it was a real struggle to find out where the heck we were.

COOPER: It's amazing. Sarah, where did you ride out the storm?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We -- we were in the basement of our home. It was an old cellar, I think originally an outdoor cellar. And we just were watching TV, getting ready for dinner, and we heard the sirens go off. So we went to the basement and continued watching TV until we couldn't hear it any more and realized what was going on.

COOPER: And what was like being in the basement hearing the storm? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was crazy. I mean, actually, the only reason I know that I knew what was going on is because of TV and people saying it sounds like a train. And it dawned on us when I said oh, it sounds like a train going by, we realized, you know, what it was. And when the pressure of our ears came, you know, it felt like our ears were going to blow. And that's when my fiance said we're definitely in a tornado. So it was pretty terrifying.

COOPER: Aaron, how did you finally find Sarah?

COX: Well, after we didn't find them at the house, we didn't know what to do. But people pointed us to the Walgreen's a few blocks away saying that was where they had a triage center set up. So that's where we went. They weren't there, so we just started walking down Main Street, or what was left of Main Street, trying to get a cell phone signal, which was nonexistent, asking people if they had seen them, yelling out their names.

And finally, we just happened to walk into cell coverage. And her fiance, Mike, got a phone call through to us that lasted about ten seconds. Pretty much saying they had made it to our parents' house. They were OK and then the phone cut out. But I mean, that's all we needed to hear, thankfully.

COOPER: Wow. That's incredible. Sarah, your cat, Kirby, is Kirby OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is OK. He's a little traumatized. That's why I didn't bring him tonight. Yes, he's happy and, you know, ready to be getting back to usual, you know.

COX: And Aaron, I'm told you're getting married in just a couple of days and you managed to actually save the wedding dress. How did you do that? Because I know somebody else who, the store where the wedding dress was, was obliterated and their dress is gone.

COX: Yes, sir. Similar -- similar story. We're walking down Main Street, and this is right after we had found out they're OK. So now we're trying to get a hold of our parents or our relatives and our other brother in town, and we come across the alteration store. And it's blown up. The roof is half on, the glass is all blown out.

So my fiance, McKenzie, realizing that's the alterations shop. So she crawls in through a broken window, and I'm waiting outside for her. And she emerges a few minutes later and just this big grin on her face. And she's like, this was the only dress that was not on the floor in shreds or soaked.


COX: And her dress was still in the white bag, still hanging on the rack.

COOPER: That's amazing.

COX: And so in part of the video, you see me walking with this giant white bundle. And that's what it is. It's a 10-pound wedding dress.

COOPER: That's incredible. And are you holding the wedding in Joplin?

COX: Yes. The church we grew up is the First United Methodist Church on Fourth and Byers (ph), which is actually the FEMA headquarters right now, too, I believe.

COOPER: That's -- well, that's a great -- I'm so glad you guys found each other and that everybody is OK.

COX: Thank you.

COOPER: And I wish you all the best. There's a lot of stories that did not end happily, so it's nice to have one that has. Thank you so much. Have a great wedding.

COX: Thank you.


COOPER: Thousands of buildings in Joplin were damaged or destroyed. According to one estimate, the destruction could total $3 billion. But Missouri's governor, Jay Nixon, has vowed to rebuild the city and a lot of residents in Joplin echo the governor. They'll begin again, timber by piece of timber, brick by brick.


COOPER (voice-over): How do you begin to rebuild? How do you decide where to start? Sally Smith is figuring it out.

SALLY SMITH, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I'm finding stuff over here and I'm also finding stuff over there. So I don't even know where to start looking.

COOPER: We first met Sally in what remains of the living room of her mother's home.

(on camera) Is it all right if we stand up there? So this was sort of a fire...

SMITH: Fireplace. And the piano. We had, of course -- had windows. The couch was here. I don't know where the couch is.

COOPER (voice-over): Sally's mother, Marge, is 80 and survived the storm in her sister's house nearby. She doesn't yet know her home is gone. Sally and her family are hoping to find some personal belongings to cushion the blow.

SMITH: The first thing we did was look for jewelry. You know, things that my grandmother had given her.

COOPER (on camera): Things that had sentimental value.

SMITH: Sentimental value. Then I looked for clothes. Now we're just going through pots, plans, plates, things -- functional things that she can use to rebuild her life.

COOPER: That's how you begin rebuilding?


COOPER: Just little pieces here and there?

SMITH: Yes, yes.

COOPER (voice-over): Some of her mother's doll collection survived the tornado. Sally still can't believe what she's seeing.

SMITH: Overwhelmed. I just -- I told my husband this morning, I'm just overwhelmed. I just don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do. It will work out. It will. But I've never -- I've never been through anything like this in my life, ever.

COOPER: That's the kind of thing you always see on the news.

SMITH: You see it. And we keep seeing pictures, and I keep telling people that doesn't do it justice.

COOPER (voice-over): Most of the upstairs of the house is gone.

(on camera) This is your bedroom when you were...

SMITH: This is my bedroom when I was growing up. You could see all the way to Home Depot. So it was just...

COOPER: It's incredible, from the Home Depot, I mean, they're -- it's literally as far as the eye can see all the way around.

SMITH: It's just gone. Wal-Mart, I mean, you could see Wal- Mart. It's just right there. It's gone.

COOPER (voice-over): Sally's home survived the storm. But her employer was badly hit. She's not sure if she still has a job.

(on camera) You're wearing a T-shirt that says, "Life is good."

SMITH: Life is good. Life is good. God is not going to give us anything we cannot handle. And I know his hand is in it. I've seen too many things. We will be fine. Saying goodbye to things is hard, you know, but it's life. We go on.

COOPER: You're about the most optimistic person I think I've met in a long time.

SMITH: I don't know. I just -- like I said, life goes on. You cannot -- you cannot fall apart over things like this.

COOPER (voice-over): You can't fall apart, and so she doesn't. That's how you rebuild, she tells me. That's how you restart. You stay strong. You pick up the pieces, and you start one by one.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: Well, it's not just in Joplin where so many lives are being rebuilt. In Oklahoma, a funnel cloud cut a tractor trailer in half. The driver escaped with his life. The picture's incredible. We'll have an up-close look at the extreme weather there, coming up.

And in the same state, a family runs for cover as a tornado moves dangerously close to their home. But their dog, Roxy, has to be left behind. The story has a remarkable ending. We'll show you that ahead.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's that out there, dude? Look right out there. Get that. Get that, get that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got it now. Holy hell.


COOPER: A look at the deadly tornado that hit Oklahoma.

This is the deadliest tornado season since 1953. States from Ohio to Texas have been on guard. And since Joplin was struck, there have been dozens of other tornadoes across the Midwest causing death, injury and destruction. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God! Back up. Oh, no! Stop. Oh, no.

COOPER: In this part of the country where things were bad, they have quickly gotten worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Extremely large and dangerous tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very large tornado.

COOPER: At least 16 people were killed in storms that struck parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas. Ten of those 16 dead are because of this monster.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another killer tornado!

COOPER: Dozens were injured across central Oklahoma, many along the Interstate 40 corridor leading out of Oklahoma City. Watch as this twister swallows this 18-wheeler and completely obliterates it. Somehow the driver in the cab made it out with only minor injuries. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm stopping because it's coming up to I-40 right now. Unbelievable. It's right here. It is -- it's a killer tornado. Goodness gracious, wow!

COOPER: Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency statewide.


COOPER: Meanwhile in Arkansas, at least four people were killed by the storms and another two in Kansas. In these states as well, overturned trucks, destroyed homes are scattered on the ground for miles.

More than 500 people have been killed this tornado season, a season that still has months to go.


COOPER: I want to give you another remarkable view of a tornado that touched down in Oklahoma from the vantage point of reporter David Payne of CNN affiliate KFOR.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The motion is tremendous. David Payne, are you still with us? Violent tornado coming into Piedmont.

DAVID PAYNE, KFOR REPORTER: Another killer tornado. It went across highway 81, intensified, and it almost got us. It intensified right on top of us. It's amazing.


COOPER: I had a chance to speak with David Payne by phone about what it was like.


COOPER: David, how close were you to that tornado?

PAYNE (via phone): Well, you know what? That video there, that was kind of about the end of the chase. The first tornado, which I would love to give you -- I hope you guys can get some video of this. That was on the west side of Delrea (ph). You mentioned Canadian county, west side of Oklahoma City.

And at that one point, I lost a side rearview mirror, or a side mirror off my car, and I knew we were within a couple hundred yards when it was nearly about three quarters of a mile wide tornado when it set down southwest of Oklahoma City.

An incredible storm. It goes back to what we just witnessed in Joplin, Missouri, the Deep South and April 27. And you got to go back to last time we had an event like this in Oklahoma City, May 3rd of 1999. The tornadoes were violent, long-tracking tornadoes, absolutely amazing. And these storms just went up hard. They were turning and rotating from start to finish, and they were killer tornadoes in Oklahoma.

COOPER: And to get that close, what does it actually feel like? I mean, people talk about a pressure change.

PAYNE: Right. You know, there is, if you're really chose, you know, you often hear the noise that it sounds like. If you're really close, it sounds like -- we're close to Secor (ph) Air Force Base. So we hear jets. It sounds like you're standing next to a jet airplane, like you're back by the engine.

Your ears will pop sometimes. But they pop big-time and you can have, obviously, ear damage if you're caught inside of a tornado. And our plan is not to do that.

But when you're close to it, you know, it's traumatic, it's chaos. It's -- there's drama. And it's insane, and your main objective is you're trying to tell people, "Hey, this is where it is. And if you don't move, if you don't move, you've got to get out of the way or go below ground or you're going to die."


COOPER: David Payne of CNN affiliate KFOR. Incredible work there.

Still ahead tonight, an Oklahoma family that did heed the warnings but barely made it to their safe room in time.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay in there, Paisley.


COOPER: This video showed them running to reach the safe room to save themselves. They had to leave their beloved pet behind. What happened later after that is just amazing.


COOPER: There is so much destruction in communities across the Midwest right now. Tornadoes rob people of their loved ones, their homes, all their possessions. It's really unthinkable.

I want to take you back, though, to Oklahoma, the city of Piedmont, where one family lost their home and thought they'd also lost their beloved pet. Ed Lavandera tells us what happened next.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the frantic moments...

FRANK WOOD, TORNADO SURVIVOR: It's coming right over us. We are right in its path.

LAVANDERA: ... just before Frank Wood scrambled up the stairs to his balcony and saw the tornadic beast for the first time, staring him straight in the eyes.

F. WOOD: That's once-in-a-lifetime. You'll probably never see this again. And it's moving fast. It's huge.

LAVANDERA: Wood rushed his children down into the garage and locked themselves into a rock-solid reinforced safe room. But they couldn't grab the family's dog in time, a boxer named Roxy.

F. WOOD: She was basically standing there, staring at me, and I'm just trying -- I'm trying to get her to come in. And David is just, "We've got to shut the door."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought she was just going to get sucked up by the tornado.

LAVANDERA (on camera): So it was kind of heartbreaking to close that door and leave her outside?


LAVANDERA (voice-over): Time had run out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In fact, go. We got to get in now.

LAVANDERA: Moments later the tornado strikes the Woods' home.

F. WOOD: Here's the safe room.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a good thing to have.

F. WOOD: That's a very good thing to have. It saved our lives.

LAVANDERA: This is what the house looked like before the tornado: three stories tall, overlooking 12 green acres.

(on camera) When you look at this house, it's amazing to think that it was once a three-story house. The tornado shredded the top two stories. Frank Wood's pickup truck was thrown almost 300 yards into a ditch.

F. WOOD: You're completely helpless. It's beyond your control, and you just -- you just sit there and pray. We just got there on our knees and sat there, and it was over.

LAVANDERA: But Roxy is nowhere to be found, and 8-year-old Paisley Wood is devastated. We climbed through the rubble to find the sky is the ceiling. Frank Wood hunting for anything that might bring a smile to his daughter's face.

F. WOOD: This is her teddy bear she got when she had her appendix out about three months ago at Children's Hospital.

LAVANDERA: But Paisley can't stop thinking about her dog.

F. WOOD: Paisley cried for about -- that was probably the most upsetting to the kids out of all of it was Roxy.

LAVANDERA: Then a phone call one day after the storm and almost two miles away from the Woods' home, David Franco, an oil rig worker, sees a dog walking around his work site.

DAVID FRANCO, CHESAPEAKE ENERGY: As soon as I saw her, I knew she belonged to somebody who maybe their house is down (ph).

LAVANDERA: Paisley and her family jump in their truck and race to see if it's true, that their dog has somehow managed to escape the tornado's grip. Then the moment they'd been hoping for.

F. WOOD: There, she's coming right now.


LAVANDERA: It is Roxy.

F. WOOD: Thank you very much. Here we go. Bless her little heart.

LAVANDERA: She survived, who knows how, with only a small scratch on her leg.

(on camera) What do you think of finding your dog?

P. WOOD: Awesome!

LAVANDERA: You didn't think you were going to see Roxy again, did you?

P. WOOD: No.

LAVANDERA: And when you found out she was OK?

P. WOOD: I was very happy. I started dancing.

LAVANDERA: The happy dance?

P. WOOD: Yes.

LAVANDERA: They might not have a place to call home, but they've got each other, and Roxy, too.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Piedmont, Oklahoma.


COOPER: We've met so many incredible people this week, and we want to thank them all in many states for spending some time with us and letting us tell their stories and letting us see their bravery and their courage in the face of really unspeakable loss. Thank you very much for watching. Stay with CNN for continuing coverage of the tornadoes and especially how Joplin, Missouri begins the long and hard task of rebuilding out of the rubble.