Staff Sgt. Neville Shiwdin struggled to hold closed the door to the closet in which he, his wife and kids took shelter inside his home as a tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo. May 22.
It was supposed to be a typical Sunday evening dinner. As a busy recruiter for Recruiting Substation Joplin, Recruiting Station Kansas City, Shiwdin always used Sunday night as a family night to eat dinner with his wife and kids. The table was set. But on the radio, they heard the storm was coming. Shiwdin helped his kids empty the closet on the bottom floor in the center of the house.
“No sooner than I shut the door, the windows went and all hell broke loose.” Shiwdin said.
Just as he shut the door, he heard the windows shatter and it was like a vacuum sucked all the air out. The storm ripped a hole in the second floor ceiling above them. He heard the sounds of wood cracking as trees outside were ripped from the ground.
“I was holding on to that door for dear life,” he said.
He’s not sure how long they were in there, he lost track of time. After the turbulence was over, he scavenged for water and blankets throughout his home. It was still standing. The hole in the roof and the shattered windows allowed a lot of debris and water to fill the home, but it hadn’t collapsed. And dinner still stood undisturbed on the table.
“I’m not a very religious man but there had to be something protecting me,” Shiwdin said. “Because when I stepped outside and looked at the rest of the neighborhood, that’s all I could think about. And then I set out to do what Marines do; help out wherever I could.”
The first thing he heard was a lady screaming outside and a couple of explosions from gas lines. The woman went to a store and left her kids alone at home when the tornado struck. She was lost. She couldn’t find her house anymore. The streets were unrecognizable. The piles of rubble on every block looked the same. Shiwdin knew her street was a couple of blocks away. But when they got there, the house was gone.
“This lady was hysterical,” Shiwdin said. “She was trying to jump in there and start clawing at… there was just nothing there. We had to hold her back. There was nothing we could do.”
He continued to move through his neighborhood trying to help people. He heard a child screaming for help from another decimated house. He and many of his neighbors who he had never met before began pulling the child out of the rubble. The boy complained of pain in his leg, then they saw the bone sticking out of the flesh of his knee. They stopped. They realized they had to be more careful. An ambulance showed up. It was full, but the child had priority. The ambulance removed another victim to make room for him.
Shiwdin was worried about the many elderly he knew lived in his neighborhood. He found out one man next door was having a heart attack, but the man’s family car was trapped under a tree. Shiwdin had a van that would still run. He kicked out what was left of the shattered windows and gave them the vehicle. He found his other SUV in bad condition but with a running engine and used it to take more people to a triage center a couple of blocks away.
Fifteen blocks away, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Thorson, a fellow recruiter at the RSS, received a text from Shiwdin that his house was severely damaged. Thorson’s family didn’t take shelter as their home wasn’t disturbed by the storm. He tried to call back but Shiwdin wasn’t answering. The cellular network wasn’t transmitting calls very well. So, Thorson and his wife got in their Jeep and took off to find Shiwdin and his family.
“He’s my brother,” Thorson said. “I went out there to get him. It was horrible. There were people everywhere. People that needed help but I couldn’t stop because I wanted to make sure (Shiwdin) and his family were taken care of. There were bodies on the side of the road. There were people screaming and yelling and walking down the street with broken arms and broken legs.”
Thorson finally arrived at Shiwdin’s home.
“He was looking out the window,” Thorson said. “We kind of laughed about it for a second. I don’t know, it was kind of one of those weird moments.”
They quickly packed up the Jeep and Shiwdin’s SUV and left. They heard another tornado might be on the way, but the trip was taking its toll on Thorson’s Jeep. Not long after they started the trip back to Thorson’s home, the debris they were driving over had shredded one of his tires. They stopped and changed it but two other tires were punctured and quickly losing air. They managed to make it to Thorson's home before the tires went completely flat.
The next day, the Marines of the RSS recovered anything vital from Shiwdin’s home and began helping others in their community. They went to several triage centers including the one at Missouri Southern State University. They directed traffic and organized supplies. Other Marines from Recruiting Station Kansas City arrived and helped patch the roof on another Marine recruiter’s home.
Shiwdin received calls from Marines across the country. One of his former units is sending him a care package. He’s also looking at renting a home in Thorson’s neighborhood for his family. He’s continues without fear that the support of his fellow Marines will help his family recover.