Feature Stories, Newspaper Writing

A Twist(er) of Fate for Tornado Survivors

mess_logoPublished May 2003 in The Messenger,
The Newspaper of the Belleville Catholic Diocese


The silence was eerie. No one screamed, no one cried and no one spoke. Crowded among 25 people in a frigid meat cooler, Mark Philpott said a prayer.

At that moment, a tornado plummeted through the County Market in Canton, Mo. as the building shook, beams crashed to the ground and winds up to 230 mph caused the walls to cave. No one screamed, no one cried and no one spoke. Mark Philpott kept praying.

Thirty miles away, Joanne Gough was also saying a prayer as another tornado edged closer to the flea market she was working in Rutledge, Mo. A member of Our Lady of Assumption parish, the Fairview Heights resident was with her sister and their 73-year old mother when she noticed large debris falling from the sky.

“It was really something to see,” Gough said. “I just kept saying ‘please don’t let it hit us’.”

Attempting to outrun the tornado edging closer and closer, Gough and her family drove through winding, rural streets as Rutledge residents crouched in ditches and culverts for safety. Though it was the road less taken, torn and cluttered from the strong winds, the mother-daughter team forged on until they reached Canton, Mo.

“It was really an experience,” Gough said. “First, we saw two trucks turned over on the highway and then the grocery store came into sight – it was completely flattened.”

Cold and shivering, the crowd of employees and customers emerged from the cooler at the County Market, only to find that they had barely escaped death. No one screamed, no one cried and no one spoke. Mark Philpott’s prayers were answered.

“You never think something like this would happen to you,” Philpott said. “We are all very lucky.”

Just hours before, business was booming at the Canton, Mo. grovery store where Philpott works as a night-time manager, but by 6:30 p.m. the store was virtually empty as grey clouds filled the sky and a v-shaped funnel slowly approached the shopping center. “It was massive. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Philpott said.

Instructing the employees and customers to get in the meat cooler, he locked the front door and ran to the back of the store. Just as he reached the cooler, he saw a woman running toward the store, clutching two children.

“She came out of nowhere and the tornado was right behind her,” Philpott said.

Within moments, Philpott safely ushered the woman and her children into the cooler, closing the door just in time. “You often wonder how you’re going to react in that kind of situation,” Philpott said. “I just did what I had to do.”

Now the city must do what they need to do to recover from the devastating twist of fate.

The small Missouri community united together to rise above the aftermath of the storm that left an estimated $40 million in damages, including 90 destroyed homes. The American Red Cross and Salvation Army set up camp in the County Market parking lot while neighboring police and fire personnel volunteered their time.

“What’s amazing to me is that everyone has been very positive,” Philpott said. “They realize that homes and buildings are replaceable – people are not.”

As onlookers drove through town, dodging broken tree limbs and debris, they were met with a local diner marquee that read, “God Blessed Our Town – Today’s Special.”

 – Shannon Philpott


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