By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
The Norman Transcript
MOORE — Zach Woodcock knew the storms were going to be bad on May 22, 2011, so turning on the Weather Channel was a natural instinct.
What he saw filled him with fear. The Moore resident’s family lived in Joplin, Mo.
“I saw that guy standing there in front of St. John’s and I just dropped everything and headed to Joplin,” he said. “I couldn’t get ahold of my family. I was just praying.”
His uncle, Jim Houk, and his grandmother, Shirley King, survived, but both lost their homes. Other extended family members also were OK.
Woodcock, who owns a construction company in Moore, spent the next three months helping with relief and recovery efforts in Joplin, where his parents, Larry and LaDonna Woodcock, grew up.
Woodcock prayed again on Monday, he said, but this time the tragedy was closer to home. It was as he pulled children from the Plaza Towers Elementary School after an EF-5 tornado ground across the city.
“My stepson, Dalton, went to Plaza Towers, and we have a lot of friends who live around there. It was the first place I stopped to see if they needed help,” he said.
“It was complete destruction. Little kids —” Woodcock choked back tears, pausing to collect himself. “They were looking for their mothers and fathers. People were screaming, ‘There’s kids trapped. There’s kids trapped.’ The kids were screaming, ‘Help me, help me’. So we dug.”
“I was praising God for the ones that made it and praying to God for the ones that didn’t to help them,” he said.
By Wednesday, he had moved into recovery and relief mode at a home he owns on SW 6th Street, a home in which he and his wife — Grove, Okla. native Denisha Fisher — got married. They raised their twin daughters, Kenzie and Kortnie, 7, and her son, Dalton Duffield, 15, there.
“We rent it out now, but all the sentimental things from when the kids were little were stored out back,” Woodcock said amidst piles of belongings reduced to rubble. “Their baby blankets, things like that. Irreplaceable things.”
“I left half my heart in Joplin, and half my heart here,” he said. “Now they’re even more connected.”
Like Woodcock, Sarah Bollin, a teacher at Highland West Junior High in Moore, remembers responding to the Joplin tornado where friends and family lost homes and belongings.
And now, like Woodcock, she’s helping at home. Bollin graduated from Joplin High School in 2003, and began teaching in Moore in 2008. She, too, was petrified the evening of May 22, 2011.
“I was calling, texting, watching it on TV,” she said of the Joplin tornado. “When I found out my family was OK, I still had one week left here at school. I knew I had to finish up, or it would inconvenience a lot of other people. So I stayed, then packed up supplies and headed to Joplin.”
Her sister, Lara Stamper, is a teacher at Joplin’s East Middle School, which was leveled in the storm. Her brother and sister-in-law, Brent and Amy Bollin, lived at 29th and Wall in the destruction zone and their child would have been a kindergartener at nearby Irving Elementary — also leveled.
“I don’t really remember that week very well,” she said of the days that followed the Joplin tornado. “I do remember people I knew responding with donations of supplies. I didn’t ask; it just came.”
Bollin’s Moore home was at the edge of the destruction zone but was not damaged by the tornado. In its aftermath, her days have been filled with faculty meetings, comforting students who had siblings at Plaza Towers and Briarbrook elementary schools, and “helping out where I can.”
“The same that happened in Joplin is happening here. The outpouring is amazing.”
Carthage resident Jason Betts, a nurse manager for Tyson Foods in Noel, Mo., was a first responder in the aftermath of the May 22 Joplin tornado.
“I went to Lowe’s,” Betts said. “It was awesome to be able to work as a nurse in the field and help people, and Tyson fed me and the other first responders who were working.”
Wednesday, a half-mile from Woodcock’s salvaging efforts, Betts was again helping after a tornado. This time, he was grilling Tyson chicken breasts in the parking lot of Southgate Church at the edge of the destruction zone.
He was part of a 25-person disaster response team Tyson put on the road to Moore on Tuesday, with representatives from plants in Noel, Mo., Springdale, Ark., and Sherman, Texas.
Their three-week experience in Joplin helped the company streamline its disaster response operations and prompted them to add a 53-foot tractor-trailer to serve “Meals That Matter.”
“Now I’m able to pay it forward to people who are helping here,” Betts said.