A year after a massive tornado descended on Joplin and blotted out the setting sun, the city awoke Tuesday to bright sunshine as it began a day of solemn remembrance of that tragic spring night in which hundreds were killed or injured.
"It is so fitting to begin this day, this anniversary, by reflecting on our faith as dawn breaks over a renewed Joplin," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said at a sunrise service at Freeman Hospital to honor the tornado survivors, medical workers and volunteers who aided the recovery. "Scripture tells us that the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day."
The hospital has seen a surge in use because the tornado destroyed St. John's Regional Medical Center, which has since occupied a succession of temporary facilities but is being rebuilt at a new location — and renamed as Mercy Hospital Joplin.
The May 22, 2011, twister was the nation's deadliest in six decades, killing 161 people, injuring hundreds more and destroying thousands of buildings, including the city's only public high school. Groundbreaking ceremonies are scheduled at three sites for replacement buildings, including Joplin High School's future home.
A 4-mile unity walk through some of the city's hardest hit neighborhoods begins at 2 p.m. in neighboring Duquesne, where more than one-fourth of the community's 750 homes were destroyed and nine people died. The Joplin portion of the walk begins past a Wal-Mart where 200 people survived the storm by huddling together in employee break rooms, bathrooms and other designated safe zones. Three people, though, were killed inside that store.
The walk will conclude with a moment of silence at Cunningham Park at 5:41 p.m., the precise time when the EF-5 tornado packing 200 mph winds hit Joplin. The city park, which is across the street from the hulking remains of the St. John's hospital, has since been rebuilt.
Malichi Murdock, 17, was on stage at a community theater when the tornado hit. He was hit in the head by debris, and he doesn't remember anything from that night. His face was so badly damaged that his parents initially didn't recognize him when they saw him at Freeman six hours later.
"It was like a war zone" at the hospital, said Susan Murdock, Malachi's mother. "The smell of blood, people everywhere."
Three people inside the Stained Glass Theater died, including the play's director.
While many of Tuesday's events will reflect upon the past year, community leaders are also looking ahead toward what is bound to be a long recovery effort.
In January, elected officials and other members of a 45-person recovery committee endorsed a long-term recovery plan that calls for the creation of four new business districts that would allow residents to live and shop nearby and a unified approach to rebuilding that ensures new construction meets certain design standards.
The day's events are also expected to attract some of the more than 130,000 volunteers who descended on southwest Missouri from across the country to help out. That group includes a contingent of bicyclists who left New York City's Central Park nearly three weeks ago on a Cycle for Joplin fundraising ride organized by a group of former Joplin residents known as the Joplin Expats.