Staff Sergeant Michael Byers of Missouri Army National Guard’s HHC, 203rd Engineer Battalion, 35th Engineer Brigade, has deployed twice and seen his share of combat, but nothing prepared him for the day when a tornado ripped through his hometown of Joplin and he needed to rescue a man who was impaled on a steel beam. This is his story, as told to GX Magazine.
SSG Michael Byers stands on remaining rubble at the site of Joplin High School. The new high school (seen in the background) is scheduled to open by August 2014. Photo by Mark Neuenschwander.
On May 22, 2011, my cousin, Brian Hamlet, my wife and I, my sister and her [now husband] were getting ready for dinner at a restaurant in Joplin. We were under a tornado warning, though, so we weren’t going to leave the babysitter. Instead, we watched the TV to get an idea of where the tornado was.
We do get a lot of warnings where we are. The tornados usually travel up the I-44 corridor here, so we were thinking, “They never hit; why did this have to happen when we’re trying to go out to dinner?” But when we saw transformers blowing up all across the city on live TV, instantly my heart dropped.
Seeing the tornado’s path, I knew it hit our armory. As the supply sergeant, the idea of weapons scattered across Joplin came to my mind, so I immediately grabbed my uniform, bandages — whatever I could — as I rushed out the door.
I asked my cousin to go with me and we drove as fast and as far as we could. The tornado had ripped a large path between my home north of town and the armory on the south side of town. Huge trees were down every few feet. And as we were driving, the tornado was still ripping through Joplin, so you could see the black storm raging in the distance.
We got to where the tornado had been and got out of the truck, walking. Everything was leveled. There was nothing. The scene was surreal — like a movie set. Not a tree, not a house standing for half a mile.
It was somehow noisy and calm at the same time. People were climbing out of shelters. Transformers kept blowing up. Alarms were going off as people climbed out of cars thrown hundreds of feet through the air. One house was completely on fire near a gas pipe that was spewing out something we thought could easily explode. We ran down to the worst hit area, jumping over power lines and avoiding the gas lines that were spraying everywhere. Everybody in that area was under rubble, screaming and moaning.
That’s where we found Mark Lindquist. He had been working at a group home, caring for three boys with Down syndrome. We came across the boys first. One we couldn’t help, but we gave aid to the other two. Lindquist was toward the top of a big shaky pile of rubble with a piece of metal like a steel guardrail impaled through his back. He had landed on it, broken bones galore and had lost a large amount of blood. He had suffered a head injury and was muttering the same moan over and over again, moving on the piece of metal he couldn’t get off of.
Impaled like that, he didn’t have much blood left, and the only way to be able to treat him was to get him off of the rubble. So we had to muscle him — he’s a big guy — off of the metal, then took off our shirts and used them to try to stop the bleeding. Eventually, we just had to drag him onto the ground and work on him.
I had gone through first aid training during mobilization on two different tours, to Afghanistan and Iraq. But when you actually have to use it, it really makes you want to pay attention more when those classes are going on. It’s definitely something I stress with my guys now.
After we had given him aid, eventually we got to that moment where we expected that ambulances and fire trucks would show up to take these people to safety. In reality, there was no help coming. So I left the mass casualty staging area we had set up and ran about four blocks to a major street, yelling for some guys with four-wheel drive trucks to get down there and help us out. We cleared the way, but some of them still damaged their trucks driving over huge downed telephone poles and all kinds of debris.
On my first tour in Iraq, I did primarily combat missions — security, escorting, that type of stuff. Eventually you get used to the death and destruction in combat, and learn to react to certain situations. But this was a lot worse than what I’d seen in combat, because we didn’t have a medevac helicopter to call. We didn’t have life-saving equipment on us. We didn’t just hold the wound and yell for help to come. You’re more prepared for it on a deployment. This, on the other hand, was a lot of casualties, and I didn’t have a platoon of people to help me.
Lindquist looked like the worst casualty — he was visually out of blood, gray in color. So he went out on the first truck we were able to get in. An older lady who was by Lindquist, the two boys with Down syndrome, another lady with a broken arm, and one or two other folks also got into the trucks that came. We had a system going — civilians were getting their trucks there hauling people out, while we continued to look through debris for people.
Eventually, fire trucks and ambulances showed up, so we headed to the armory, where we shifted into cleanup mode.
Later, after the mission was over, it was heavy on my cousin’s heart and my heart to go to the hospital to check on the two boys that we had pulled out. We found out they didn’t make it, but we saw Lindquist in the ICU — when he was still not supposed to live. Eventually, he surprised them all and made it.
For the next few months, as the cleanup continued, I went back to my job as a supply sergeant — getting food and water to the troops, working on basic supply functions.
That day, my cousin Brian got a taste of what we do in the Guard. So now he’s a 33-year-old private first class in my unit. And it turned out to be lucky we made that choice to stay home with the babysitter, because the restaurant that we would’ve gone to got hit directly, and people got killed there.
Looking back on the mission, I just feel like I did my job. I did help people that day, but to me I just did what I was brought up to do by my father, and what I was taught to do by my unit and my commanders. I did what was asked of me.
Editor’s note: After administering life-saving first aid, Byers and Hamlet sent Lindquist to the hospital but in the confusion didn’t find him again for three days. Lindquist was in a coma for seven weeks following the tornado, with only a 2 percent chance of living, but more than three years later, he is alive with only limited mobility of his arm. For his actions following the Joplin tornado, Byers received the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for valor in a non-combat situation.
The tornado, rated EF5 (the most severe) was nearly a mile wide at one point, with winds peaking close to 250 mph. It killed 161 people, making it one of the deadliest twisters in the U.S. since officials began keeping records. Acres of the town were flattened, and 7,500 dwellings were destroyed. More than 9,200 people were displaced.
Army National Guard troops were immediate responders, rescuing people, providing first aid, and restoring order. Then they spent almost 20 months after the disaster rebuilding their city. The Guard oversaw the federal debris removal program, which cleared more than 1.5 million cubic yards of debris by late 2011 alone (the tornado generated more than 3 million cubic yards overall). The Guard also assisted the State with a program that created temporary jobs to aid in the cleanup. About 1,400 residents were employed.
If you have what it takes to be an immediate responder, visit our jobs board and contact a recruiter today.
Story, as told to Marc Acton, and photo by Mark Neuenschwander courtesy of GX magazine. GX magazine is an official publication of the Army National Guard. Below is a full-length video of the Army National Guard’s response to the Joplin tornado, which includes a segment on SSG Byers and Mark Lindquist.