Returning to his hometown for the first time since winning last year’s Daytona 500, Jamie McMurray couldn’t help but notice, of all things, the dumpster.
“All wrinkled up like a can someone stepped on,” he said.
Then there was a car, across the street from his alma mater, Joplin Senior High School. “Wrapped around a tree,” said Patrick Tuttle, director of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Like it had melted.”
As fragments, the images are not unfamiliar to connoisseurs of America’s motor speedways. Twisted metal is every NASCAR fan’s guilty pleasure. It wouldn’t be inaccurate, or even inappropriate, then, to describe McMurray’s hometown as a wreck.
But in its totality, this wreck extends between one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide and 13 miles long, the result of an EF-5 tornado on May 22. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 138 confirmed fatalities, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Approximately 7,000 homes had been damaged, 6,000 of those apparently beyond repair, according to Jeff Nene from the Convoy of Hope relief organization.
Still, as the driver himself noted, it was impossible to gauge the disaster’s true dimensions. “I know what Joplin used to look like,” he said. “But I got to 15th and Main and it’s like the town just ends. . . . It almost makes you dizzy. . . . I couldn’t tell where I was. . . . You don’t recognize anything . . . ”
Most of the street signs had blown away, but so had the oaks and the sycamores firmly rooted for more than a century. Many of the trees remaining upright had turned bone white, stripped of their bark by the tornado’s 200-mph-plus winds. To look upward from the lobby of St. John’s hospital, where 10 stories of shattered glass still crunched beneath your feet, was to gaze into the cupola of a ruined cathedral. To enter the high school was to feel suddenly submerged, as if transported into a dark shipwreck, a wet, muddy cake on the floor. Past the bank of lockers, a lunchroom loomed like a lagoon, with light streaming through the broken ceiling and cords and cables hanging like whips of coral.
Still, if the catastrophe defied measurement, it also defied metaphor. “I met a couple who had three kids,” said McMurray. “And they lost two.”
He was referring to Shante Caton, a 10-year-old Girl Scout, and her brother, Trenton, 6. McMurray met their parents and grandparents at the Convoy of Hope relief site, as they told him how they tried to physically hold onto their children. One was found in the yard. Another died later at a hospital. McMurray listened to their story, trying to hide his weepy eyes behind dark sunglasses.
“I’m sorry,” he kept saying. “I’m so sorry.”
Finally, during a break, the winner of last year’s Brickyard 400 asked to be excused for a moment.
“I went into one of those portable bathrooms and broke down,” said McMurray.
As it happened, Shante’s and Trenton’s grandmother, Aleta Whitely, works as a shipping clerk for Bass Pro Shops, McMurray’s biggest sponsor. "Two grandchildren lost,” said Bass CEO Johnny Morris, who wept upon meeting the family. “You got to look for good things where you can.”
But where would that be? At the hospital, where workers carried out 183 people, some of them down 10 flights of stairs?
“We lost five patients and one visitor,” said Dwayne Doran, St. John’s Director of Safety and Security. “But I still don’t know how we did it. Adrenaline?”
Then there were the workers for organizations like Convoy of Hope, a faith-based relief organization. The demand for water and ice remained intense, but by now, 12 days after the tornado, so was the need for other items like garbage bags, cardboard boxes, breathing masks, work gloves, beef jerky, granola bars, flashlights, Clorox wipes, sanitary napkins, soap and toothpaste.
They loaded one car after another, dwelling just a little longer on those with child seats in the back, secretly hoping to give a kid a popsicle or a Powerade or some Edy’s ice cream. “Anything with a little flavor,” said Nene.
Other people came to see McMurray, as if a Daytona winner could bestow something tangible, even healing. Marilyn Hadley, 55, arrived with her grandson, Hunter, shortly after 9 a.m. She had lost her house, at 2311 Wisconsin Ave., a couple of blocks east of the high school. But for some reason, what kept bothering her was losing her NASCAR memorabilia. She had a room full of autographed photos and posters and die-cast cars, some of them passed down from her father.
“Stuff I’ll never get replaced,” she said.
But an audience with McMurray, she reasoned, would somehow make it a little more bearable. Same for Linda Harbaugh, also 55, who lost her home at 2020 S. Pearl Ave., which had been there since 1903. Her place of employment, a financial services company at 1820 E. 20th St., was also destroyed.
“I am a huge race fan,” she said. “Dale Jr. is my husband’s driver, but Jamie is my driver. He’s my hometown boy. I know people who know his mother. I know people who know him.”
Harbaugh was babysitting her grandchildren, ages 3 and 9, when she heard the sirens. Then, the tornado itself: “Like the loudest freight train you ever heard — coming right into your house. You feel this pressure in your ears and your chest. It feels like the air is being pulled out of you.”
With the grandkids unharmed, Linda Harbaugh didn’t want to sound as if she were complaining. Still, she wished she had the photograph of Jamie she took last year at Kansas Speedway. He was waving at her from his car, the No. 1 Bass Pro Shop Chevrolet.
“What difference can a race car driver make?” she was asked.
“Are you serious?” she asked. “All the difference in the world.”
Tom Tinker, a retired minister, and his wife, Donna, were home that Sunday when the windows started breaking. They sought shelter in the hallway, against a sheetrock partition they call “Jamie’s wall,” abutting McMurray’s old room at 4471 E. 25th St., the house in which he grew up.
It began to disappear in sections — until, finally, it wasn’t much more than the hallway itself. Jamie’s wall had fallen in after the roof blew away, creating a triangular crawl space for the elderly couple.
“I really thought we were going to die,” said Donna, who recalls the most perilous moments being spent at “Jamie’s door.”
It still has a small plaque — awarded for a 1988 Kart race in Phoenix — affixed to the front, and teenage graffiti on the back. The scribbling dates to 1994, when McMurray graduated from Joplin Senior High School:
Sex, drugs, Rock–n-Roll,
We’re the class you can’t control,
We drive the teachers out the door,
’cause we’re the class of “94”
The door held well enough. But what of the minister?
“It’s a good question,” said Tom Tinker, 66. “It’s easy to say, ‘The Lord protected us.’ But there were lots of others who were lost. It’s hard to come up with answers right now. I don’t believe that God would do something like this as punishment. I don’t think He did it. I think it’s just laws of nature . . . maybe it has to do with global warming . . . ”
“Did it shake your faith?” he was asked. “Or make it stronger?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty strong, anyway.”
McMurray always figured that one day he’d return to purchase his childhood home. As he arrived Thursday afternoon, though, there wasn’t enough of it left to buy. There was his door, of course, and the purple shag carpet in what had been his sister’s room. But mostly there were busted bits of sheetrock and cinderblock. Strewn about the property were mustard packets, a comb, a tape cassette of sermons and a jacket still in plastic from the dry cleaner. A big tree had fallen in what was the backyard.
You could hear birds chirping and chainsaws as McMurray stepped through the debris, alone behind the fallen structure. He was looking for something.
“I had a dog named Fritz,” he said. “We buried him out here.”
Fritz was a much beloved mutt, laid to rest in a Hefty bag. But as you can’t dig very deep before hitting rock in Joplin, McMurray was concerned Fritz’s remains had come to the surface.
“I just didn’t want to see him,” said McMurray.
Now the racer was told how much his visit had meant to people like Linda Harbaugh.
“Really, you think?”
“She said it was a great day.”
The wreck stretched across the horizon. “Crazy, huh?” said Jamie McMurray.