Joplin, Missouri Survivor: Tornado 'Just One Big Wall'

Man rides out deadly twister clutching bathroom sink's pipes.

May 24, 2011, 7:04 AM

May 24, 2011 — -- Rance Junge had the surprise of his life when he opened the back door of his Pronto pharmacy in Joplin, Mo., Sunday evening, exposing a scene from another world.

"It was just one big wall," he said of the nearly mile-wide tornado. "You couldn't see a funnel. It was just so massive."

His story of survival is just one of many beginning to emerge after the twister cut a six-mile-wide path through Joplin on Sunday, causing widespread destruction and killing 117 people -- the most from one storm in 60 years.

"It wasn't even that bad out here," he said of the sky before the twister showed up at his door. "It wasn't that dark or anything. ... It didn't really seem that threatening or anything."

Although sirens had been sounding, Junge said he didn't check outside again until the store's computers started flickering on and off.

As one woman in the pharmacy hunkered down by a toilet in the bathroom, he slid under the sink and held onto the pipes. He said he was hit by a 2-by-4 because he wouldn't let go of the pipes to protect his head.

"I was just hoping the bathroom walls would hold and they didn't," Junge said. "The first wall of the tornado took out most of the building. But we made it. The toilet held."

Mother: Bicycle Helmet Saved Her Son's Life

As the tornado neared her home in Joplin, Natalie Gonzalez ran to the bathroom and huddled in the tub with her 9-year-old son Augie, her puppy and boyfriend.

"We saw the tornado warning," she told ABC News today. "We heard the sirens. I looked outside and saw the dark cloud. We made the split-second decision to take a blanket, take a pillow. ... I threw these things over my son. "

Gonzalez said that at the last minute, she got her son to put on his bicycle helmet because she'd heard it would protect a child during a hurricane.

"At one point, the toilet flew up out of the ground and hit my son in the head and me in the back and the bicycle helmet saved his life," she said. When it appeared that they were in the eye of the storm, Gonzalez said, the three ran from the bathtub and jumped into a ditch.

She said today that she was a little sore but OK. Her boyfriend was undergoing surgery for injuries he'd suffered.

'Pressure in Your Ears Was Unbelievable'

"We ducked underneath the desk in the E.R.," said Sue Hall, the nurse on call Sunday evening at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin. "The pediatric crash cart, we found outside. We believe it was swept outside. The pressure in your ears was unbelievable."

Meanwhile at the hospital, Rob Pace held onto a door, trying desperately to keep it shut against the tornado's suction.

"I heard people talk about a building and how it breathes when it's on fire," he said. "It felt like that building was breathing and that door would move in and out."

He said he could feel the suction pulling him. "We just moved in and out with the door. The door never came open," Pace said. "It's an automatic locking door. Essentially I was leaning into that door and one of the pilots was basically holding on to me."

Dr. Ronny Smalling looked out the window and saw the tornado coming. "I went over to the window. The clouds were black," he said. "Everything was blowing. Wind was blowing and trees were blowing. Then I saw things fall out of the sky, like a roof top fell out of the sky."

Joplin, Mo. Tornado: 'I Really Thought That I May Die'

He said he could feel the tornado's suction in his lungs. "Almost like a drop in barometric pressure," Smalling said. "If you dive 30 feet in water, your ears are hurting. ... I really thought that I may die, [that] this may be my time."

"After it lasted 90 seconds, we heard the hail," Smalling said. He said that after the twister left, the hospital looked like an atomic bomb had detonated. "Every single floor was completely destroyed and all of the windows were blown out. We have no hospital right now."

"Before there were beautiful, 100-year-old oak trees in an established neighborhood," Smalling said. "As far as I could see to the west and as far as I could see to the east, at least a mile wide, there was nothing but dirt, mangled trees and cars, and the fire trucks began to roll in."

ABC News staff contributed to this article.

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