JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) -- Rod Pace, Med Flight manager at St. John's Regional Medical Center, watched the tornado form to the southwest like so many before.
He was on the second floor of St John's on Sunday evening to finish payroll before an expected frantic Monday. He'd wrapped up his work, but decided to stay an extra 15 to 20 minutes to let the weather pass.
Pace saw the swirling rain start to form about a mile off. The flags outside suddenly stopped blowing to the northeast, only to be pulled back to the west.
That was about the time the glass doors he was holding onto -- the ones with the 100-pound magnet to keep them locked -- were pulled open with Pace still holding on to the handles. He was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll, all the while holding on to the handles.
He headed to the hospital's interior for cover. Then he heard the roar. Pace and a co-worker pushed on a door to make sure it stayed shut, but it kept swaying back and forth.
"I've heard people talk about being in tornadoes and saying it felt like the building was breathing," Pace said. "It was just like that."
Outside, an explosion. Glass shards pelted the exterior. Pace heard screams.
He helped pull debris off two people outside the emergency room.
"There was a lot of strength in the leadership in the hospital and ER here," Pace said. "Things were going as they were supposed to go."
A high school principal had just finished presiding over graduation when he learned that his school had been destroyed.
Joplin High School held its graduation Sunday afternoon at Missouri Southern State University. Principal Kerry Sachetta was among 75 to 100 people still lingering on campus when the twister hit. They took cover in a university basement.
After the storm passed, Sachetta began receiving text messages warning him about severe damage at the high school. He found the top part of the auditorium gone, the band and music rooms caved in, windows blown out and his office missing its roof. Fifty-year-old trees outside the school had been stripped of their limbs.
Two churches across the street were "completely gone," and Sachetta was stunned by the condition of the nearby Franklin Technology Center.
"You see pictures of World War II, the devastation and all that with the bombing. That's really what it looked like," he said. "I couldn't even make out the side of the building. It was total devastation in my view. I just couldn't believe what I saw."
Joshua Wohlford and his family were saved by a shelf of toys.
With the tornado bearing down on their trailer, Wohlford, his pregnant girlfriend and their two toddlers sought shelter at a Walmart. They escaped serious injury when a shelf of toys partially collapsed, forming a tent over them as they huddled on the floor.
"It was 15 minutes of hell," Wohlford said. "We were buried."
The family was taken to a hospital, where a fleet of school buses brought in people with minor injuries. Wohlford helped unload passengers.
On Monday, one of those buses took his family to a shelter downtown because their car had been totaled by the storm in the Walmart parking lot. They weren't sure how they would get home -- or what awaited them there.
Matthew Parks works at a homeless shelter -- and now he's concerned that he and his pregnant wife may end up living there after the twister badly damaged their house.
They weren't home when the tornado hit but returned Monday morning to find the ceiling in the kitchen caved in and water soaking the floor. The only room spared was the nursery prepared for their first child. It had virtually no damage.
While Parks collected baby clothes and other items from the nursery, his parents swept up broken glass and mopped water from the wood floor.
Eileen Parks had struggled to reach her son and daughter-in-law Sunday night. She was just happy they were OK.
"The phones were out and I thought, `Oh Matthew, please call me,"' she said.
Kelley Fritz, 45, of Joplin, rummaged through the remains of a storage building in an industrial area of Joplin on Monday with her husband, Jimmy. But they quickly realized they'd never find the things they had stored there.
They also lost many of the belongings in their home after the twister ripped away their roof. Their sons, ages 20 and 17, both Eagle Scouts, went out in the neighborhood and quickly realized every home was destroyed.
"My sons had deceased children in their arms when they came back. My husband and I went out and saw two or three dead bodies on the ground," she said.
Fritz said she was surprised she had survived. "You could just feel the air pull up and it was so painful. I didn't think we were going to make it, it happened so fast."
Associated Press writers Kurt Voigt, Jim Salter and Alan Scher Zagier contributed to this report.
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