The image, like the flash of a lightning strike, is both instant and gone.
He stood there, stooped over, head in hands, looking over what remained of his possessions among a pile of rubble, a pile of what used to be his home. He stood alone, on the slab of a foundation, and I don’t know what he was looking at amongst the detritus. A family heirloom? A photograph of his parents? The last place he saw his wife? I’ll never know.
He was there alone in that moment, and as our fire engine rolled by on the way to another search, I caught a glimpse of him. I caught a glimpse of his personal toll, his destruction, his world collapsed. He looked sad and lonely and broken, an old man with little time left on this planet; his place, his history, his world, now destroyed like everyone else’s living in the path of that deadly torrent of wind and rain and fury.
I don’t know his name, I never will. I don’t know the name of the street, and it doesn’t matter, really. As a fire response unit assisting the victims of the tornado that touched down in Joplin, Missouri on May 22nd of this year, our job was to try and help locate victims and recover bodies of the deceased and whatever needs the command structure deemed prudent. The EF-5 tornado has claimed at least 132 lives as of this writing, and the final toll won’t be known for quite a while, if I had to guess.
There is no way to describe the scope of this furious outburst. I’ve been down there a few times now, and once you cross the line from normalcy to the path of the tornado, you feel as though you’ve stepped way out of the bounds of reality. Google “Joplin tornado” and see if the images can bring an idea of the chaos into comprehension for you; then know that the images aren’t even close to what it’s like to drive for miles with nothing but shredded homes, trees, lives as far as you can see. I cannot compare it to anything I’ve ever encountered. Overwhelming in it’s presentation, depressing in it’s effects, it is a stark and saddening reminder of the frail grip we have on control of our lives. We may hold dominion over all sorts of creatures great and small, but in the end we’re links in the chain ourselves, our position no more assured than that of any other. And that’s of little comfort to those who’s lives have been ripped apart in one angry swipe of furious winds.
Silently, with lights flashing so as to help us navigate the traffic snarls a little faster, our fire engine hastened from site to site whenever canine units got hits on the scent of human flesh, each an exercise in futile optimism. We scoured the high school, an empty and shredded cavern of what was supposed to be a safe haven from the troubles of this world, natural and otherwise. We fruitlessly searched several commercial establishments, trying to locate what may have been missed in the moments and first hours after the rage.
But I kept coming back to him in my mind. The old man there, on the foundation of his home. His eyes, in the moment that I caught them, glassy and confused and lost. What good are three firemen in a yellow truck going to do him? We can’t bring back his house, his life, maybe a loved one. We aren’t going to be able to rebuild a lifetime of memories with brick and framing and new windows. We can’t even stop to offer him solace as we’re in a hurry to get to the next call; it wouldn’t matter anyways, since people were lingering around each and every remnant of a home, each taking stock in their losses. Something about him really hit me hard, though. I wanted to stop the rig and throw an arm around the guy. I couldn’t rebuild his life in that day, nor any amount of time. I’m not from Joplin, I won’t be there months from now when he’s still trapped by the memories of that destruction, helpless against the storm. I don’t even know what he was looking at, or for. None of that matters, though….in that moment, he’s another broken human, maybe in need of comfort and solace, and I wanted to give that to him. It reminded me of why the fire service is such an incredible vocation. For the briefest of moments, we can help make a terrible situation just a little less terrible, we can connect with people who need help, need comfort, need a helping hand.
Maddeningly, we couldn’t help this man. As we sped off through the intersection, and I kept my eyes on him, my soul ached for him slightly. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you have had to endure this, sir. There’s nothing I can offer you except a heart that’s willing to offer some solace, and even that’s limited – they’ve called us over there, and you’re over here, and I have to go. I’m sorry. Later on, back in Springfield, when no one is around and life is seemingly normal, I’ll wonder about you and be overwhelmed by sadness for your loss. I’ll hope someone has thrown that arm around you and comforted you and helped you to begin to pick up the pieces. I wish that someone was me, that we’d been able to stop right there for you. I’m just so sorry.