John Tsangaris and his family survived the May 22 tornado in Joplin

Former local man survives Joplin tornado

When John Tsangaris hears the tornado sirens now, he and his family head to the nearest basement as fast as possible.

When John Tsangaris hears the tornado sirens now, he and his family head to the nearest basement as fast as possible.

“Without a doubt, I’m in the basement,” says the 34-year-old who was born and raised in Campbell River.

Tsangaris still has family in Campbell River, but left here in 2001. About six years ago, he moved to Joplin, Missouri, with his wife Valetta and two step-daughters.

On May 22, the couple had just attended the high school graduation of their daughter Jeane when the tornado sirens sounded, but then stopped.

Hearing the sirens is not unusual in Joplin. They’re tested weekly and they often go off during tornado season.

However, says Tsangaris, the tornados usually avoid the city (pop. 174,000), and hit either south or north. But not this time.

The family had just gone through a McDonald’s drive-thru when the sirens went off again shortly after 5 p.m., and didn’t stop.

About 20 blocks from home, the family, in their 2007 Mercury, ran into “a black wall” and hail storm. To protect his family and the vehicle, Tsangaris pulled under the cover of an ATM canopy and told Valetta and his stepdaughter to put their heads down.

In an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal, Tsangaris described the tornado hitting as the car windows shattered and Jeane began screaming from the backseat.

They also thought they had lost their dog Athena, a service dog who helps calm Jeane, who has autism. But the dog had climbed into the backseat and was lying across Jeane to protect her.

As the swirling winds increased, the bank building collapsed, the canopy and the bank machines were blown away, and then there was a bang as a woman flew through the air and struck their car.

After a few minutes, the winds subsided and the sky started to clear. Passersby helped pry open the jammed doors of the Mercury as the family got out, almost unscathed.

Still in a daze, Valetta felt something wrong with her left arm – a compound fracture that required surgery to repair.

But Tsangaris knew they were going to be okay, so the volunteer sheriff’s deputy found a few other men who began trying to save others in their devastated community.

They lifted collapsed walls off screaming victims and found 10 people still alive. Tsangaris also found three dead, among the 89 killed that day.

After making sure his wife received medical attention, Tsangaris returned home to find their house blown off its foundation.

While the building remained intact, the structure was later condemned by the city. Almost 900 buildings were destroyed in Joplin, along with 15,000 vehicles, including Tsangaris’ car.

“We were fortunate, our (home) was still upright,” says Tsangaris, during a  phone interview on Wednesday. “Insurance…well, we’re well-insured, but we’ll see how much they cover.”

On the Monday after the tornado, the family moved into Tsangaris’ mother-in-law’s home which soon filled up with other family members who came from afar to offer assistance.

“We had 20 people in there, from Texas, North Dakota and Argentina; all from my wife’s side of the family, and they came to help,” he says.

In the aftermath of the tornado and devastation, Tsangaris says its been a blur and he just returned to work this week in the computer software industry.

“I’m still trying to get my mind back on my shoulders. I’ve had these little memory blackouts the last two weeks,” he says.

Tsangaris says his wife is doing well and last week the stitches were removed from her injured arm. The community is also rallying to help each other and other help is still pouring in from agencies and people who care.

“Essentially, the community organized itself within a couple hours of the tornado…and people are still driving by and dropping off food for us,” he says.