Harmony Heights digging out, mourning three killed as tornado flattens church - Word&Way

Harmony Heights digging out, mourning three killed as tornado flattens church

JOPLIN — Thursday was something of a breakthrough day for the people of tornado-ravaged Joplin. The sun came out around midday and travel restrictions within the area of massive destruction were all but dropped.

Harmony Heights Baptist Church's van sits among the ruins of vehicles strewn about by a May 22 tornado that ripped through Joplin. (Photo by Susan Webb)

Residents were given a reprieve from the nasty weather that had plagued recovery efforts since the tornado had wreaked its havoc. And they took advantage of it.

Home and business owners and volunteers flocked to destroyed houses and commercial structures, creating lines of crawling traffic but a beehive of activity across the ravaged town. Volunteers waved motorists to the curb, offering free meals and water. One group waved people over for free tetanus shots. Volunteers drove throughout devastated neighborhoods, passing out bottled water.

There also was activity where Harmony Heights Baptist Church once stood.

Four days earlier, bystanders came by minutes after a tornado flattened the building and helped pull Pastor Charlie Burnett and 52 other members from the rubble of Harmony Heights Baptist Church. On Thursday, Burnett and others gathered on the church parking lot.

Pastor Charlie Burnett and wife Ann pause a few minutes to share what happened at Harmony Heights Baptist Church, Joplin, destroyed when a tornado roared through the city May 22. (Photo by Bill Webb)

Twenty-five feet away lay the flattened structure and behind it the congregation's four vans and cars of the families that had driven to services on that fateful evening last Sunday. Some had been flipped. All still littered the parking lot. One lay on rubble where the church had stood.

Three women died when a massive tornado smashed the structure. Marie Piquard and Grace Aquino were killed instantly, and Mona Bridgeford was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

More members could have perished, the pastor said. The church had no basement. After tornado sirens sounded, Burnett quickly concluded the evening service and instructed members to crouch against hallway walls.

The pastor and wife Ann, the church secretary, at the last minute slipped into the audio-visual room with another couple, but Ann said her husband was still looking after other members when the tornado pounded the church.

When it was over, "I heard people crying," Burnett said. "And within five minutes I heard strange voices — voices I didn't recognize, 10 or 15 of them. They started moving boards and lifting beams" and valiantly pulled members from the wreckage.

Burnett, 68, who served the church as associate pastor for nine years and as pastor the past 16, could hear the young rescuers but he could not see them. He has been blind for the past three years.

As members were rescued from the rubble, cars pulled up to the church, and drivers invited cold, wet survivors to climb in to warm up, Burnett recalled.

Once freed, the pastor immediately reached out to a 13-year-old boy, one of a half dozen teens in the Sunday evening service. The boy's mother, Grace Aquino, was one of the three women who perished. Burnett took the boy for medical treatment before taking him home and breaking the news of his mother's death to the extended family.

"We grieve for those we lost for our sake," Burnett explained. But he acknowledged the congregation rejoiced that more were not killed or seriously injured.

"It has to be from God," Burnett said. "We had two broken ankles, one broken collarbone and two with pinched vertebrae," the only injuries beyond cuts and bruises among the 50 survivors. Fifty people walked away from the church "when it looked like they should have died," he said.

He admits he was too emotionally distraught to visit the church site the day after the tornado, but he has been by every day since. On Thursday, he, Ann and other members retrieved what items they could salvage. A vault containing most of the church's documents was found intact.

Earlier on Thursday, Baptist Student Union members from Missouri Southern State University sifted through the church's rubble to recover personal items like Bibles and purses for church members.

The church had insurance and expects "with a little help to build back," Burnett said. "We had just paid off the family life center," which was added about eight years ago.

The congregation already has established a fund to assist members who lost their homes when the tornado hit. Ann says at least 12 families were affected. The pastor and his wife said nearly every family has been accounted for.

Three churches have invited the congregation to use their facilities for worship until they rebuild. The congregation doesn't plan to meet on the Sunday after the tornado (June 5) but hopes to do so by the following Sunday (June 12).