JOPLIN, Mo. • The five tractor-trailers were parked Thursday far off a country road, a few miles from the tornado disaster zone, intentionally out of sight.
The trailers — plain white rectangles — sat in a single, neat row. These units were refrigerated, their doors padlocked shut and guarded by law enforcement officers standing like sentinels, protecting the cargo inside.
The trucks carried the victims of Sunday's devastating tornado. There were men and women and children, a tally of 126 so far. The bodies were in a single row along each trailer's floor, waiting for the delicate and complex task of identification to be completed, said Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges, who was assisting in the process.
The vast scale of the tornado's destruction called for unusual measures such as this — the warehousing of bodies far from family and friends, a multilayered identification process and delaying the release of bodies, leading to agonizing waits for families and friends.
Local officials were overwhelmed by the number of deaths. The coroner in Jasper County, where most of the deaths occurred, had only 12 body bags on hand when the tornado hit, Bridges said. More body bags were found with Bridges' office in neighboring Newton County, which had purchased surplus bags after suffering deadly tornadoes in 2008.
Immediately after the tornado, bodies were loaded in pickups and deposited at churches by well-intentioned people, Bridges said.
In the chaotic hours after the tornado, one victim was wrongly identified and taken to a funeral home before anyone realized the mistake.
Officials stopped releasing bodies after that.
A makeshift morgue was set up next to the football stadium at Missouri Southern State University before being moved to its new location. A federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team was called in, setting up a receiving center for families inquiring about the presumed dead.
Most of the victims did not suffer injuries that would make visual identification difficult, Bridges said.
Still, in a storm such as this, officials cannot assume that a man who was found dead near a mostly destroyed house lived at that address.
"I don't know if he blew over from another property," Bridges said.
Now, officials are waiting on dental records, identification by tattoos and fingerprints and, in the most complex cases, DNA.
"The biggest problem is getting the people in here with the right records," Bridges said.
Autopsies will be performed only if anything suspicious is noted, Bridges said. Otherwise, there is no doubt the victims died of blunt force trauma.
Crews are working to make sure Joplin's four city cemeteries are ready for a flood of burials. Mortuaries are preparing, too.
The Joplin Globe told the story of Don Miller who called to place an obituary for his son, Ray Donald "Tripp" Miller III.
Tripp Miller was badly injured in the tornado and died Monday. Don Miller told the paper they still didn't have his son's body.
But he was not going to wait. A memorial service was set for today.