JOPLIN, MO. • In the chaotic first days after the tornado, when nothing seemed real, word of the butterfly people began to spread.
The stories were shared in hospital waiting rooms and in lines for donated food. They were told by neighbors on streets so devastated there was nothing to do but stand and stare. A Red Cross counselor heard the stories as she handed out water and work gloves to residents in a hard-hit part of town. She got goose bumps. She told her pastor, who asked her to tell the congregation. She remembers how the crowd gasped.
The stories about butterfly people coursed through Joplin, passing one by one and then by the many, tales describing what children reported seeing on that Sunday night in May as the tornado bore down. The children said the butterfly people protected them.
These stories, tales of guardian angels, could be dismissed as a child's fanciful imagination. But the stories have taken hold here. And as the months have slipped by, the adrenaline fading along with some of the terror, the stories have assumed a new, maybe even more important role. To understand why, you have to understand what this town of 50,000 went through — and what it still faces.
The tornado killed 161 people. It shredded entire neighborhoods. More than 900 homes were lost. Big box stores collapsed. The destruction was complete, the landscape rendered foreign.
The tornado unleashed stories about death and unlikely survival: A teenager sucked from an SUV, a toddler plucked from his mother's arms, houses that exploded in 200-mph winds as families huddled in bathtubs and closets. For months, just about any place people gathered, the stories spilled out, including stories about the butterfly people.
The stories eventually found their way to Marta Churchwell. She is the skeptical sort, tough, a raspy-voiced former newspaper reporter. The longtime Joplin resident is not religious by the standards of a town known as the buckle on the Bible Belt. She is not inclined to believe in angels. But she saw what the May 22 tornado did to her town. The experience, she said, 'seared me clear to the bone."
"Looking out over the landscape, how did anyone survive? I don't know. I can't give you an answer," Churchwell said. "But it's human nature to try to find an answer."
And that's where the stories of butterfly people take flight.
• • •
The stories changed with passing time and telling. But two versions dominated.
In one, a mother and daughter fled their vehicle as the tornado neared. The girl is 3 years old. In some versions, she is 4. They have no time to reach a nearby house. The mother and daughter hit the ground. The mother covers her child. Sometimes they jumped into a culvert. Other times, into a front yard. The mother watches as the winds hurtle her car toward them. She braces for the impact. The tornado passes. They are not hurt. The mother is astonished. "Weren't they pretty?" the daughter asks. The mom is confused. "Didn't you see the butterfly people?" the daughter says. In some versions, the daughter describes seeing the butterfly people also ferrying men and women into the sky.
The other story involves a father or grandfather and two young boys. They also are trapped outside during the tornado. In most tellings, the winds are so strong the soles of the father's shoes are ripped off. But no one is hurt. Again, it is the young boys, usually described as 3 or 4 years old, who saw butterfly people hovering above them, offering protection.
Shelley Wilson heard the story of the mother and daughter. She works as a high school counselor. After the tornado, she volunteered for a Red Cross disaster mental health team. She drove through neighborhoods distributing supplies, assessing how people were holding up. She doesn't remember who told her the butterfly people stories. She heard them several times. It was never firsthand — the stories never seemed to come from someone who experienced them.
But that didn't lead Wilson to doubt.
"It's the only way we can really, honestly understand how more people were not killed," she said. "When you walk through what was left, it just kind of took your breath away."
Wilson told the story to her church. That's where Mary Parks heard it. Parks shared it with her women's golf group, including Ellen Desmond. Desmond told her brother, who lives in upstate Illinois. He recounted the tale on his community news blog.
Marsha Sherrod heard the story while volunteering at a tornado donation center. She shared it with her Sunday school class at Forest Park Baptist. One boy, a quiet 11 year old, raised his hand. The boy said he saw the butterfly people that night too, Sherrod recalled.
She believes angels were there.
"If you had seen what I saw," she said, "you would understand."
She told the story to a friend in the church choir. Darlene "DJ" Bates is an artist. The story inspired her. She painted a watercolor showing an angel above a cowering mother and daughter in the tornado. She titled it "Butterfly People."
• • •
And there's the mural.
During the summer, a mural was painted in downtown Joplin. Public meetings were held to gather ideas for the mural, how the city's history and the tornado should be depicted.
Bates attended a meeting. One night, she raised her hand.
Dave Loewenstein, an artist from Lawrence, Kan., who is director of the mural project, was there. Bates told the story of the butterfly people. It was the first Loewenstein heard it.
Loewenstein was doubtful about including butterfly people in the mural. But he and others at the city's Spiva Center for the Arts, which helped coordinate the project, did choose a butterfly theme. Big, colorful butterflies flutter across the scene, while two small angels can be seen, too. Loewenstein said the butterflies represented metamorphosis, how the city is being reborn. The mural was titled "The Butterfly Effect" to represent how the mural could inspire others to do good works. It has nothing to do with butterfly people, he said.
"We don't want our notion of butterflies pigeonholed by that story," Loewenstein said.
But at the mural's unveiling in September, the head of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce noted the connection between the mural and the butterfly people.
For people like Desmond the mural served as reinforcement.
"Even on that mural," she said, "there's butterflies because they've heard of the butterfly people."
Butterflies have long held symbolic value. The ancient Greek word "psyche" refers to both butterflies and the human soul. Butterflies are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the book "On Death and Dying," said her study of death was influenced by a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp in Poland where she saw images of hundreds of butterflies carved into walls by prisoners.
And now, butterflies are being used to describe angels.
• • •
The stories about butterfly people reached school therapists. Nearly half of all students have had some contact with the Joplin Child Trauma Treatment Center, set up in the city's schools after the tornado. Dawnielle Robinson, the clinical director, said two therapists heard stories directly from children who said they saw butterfly people.
"Some kiddos said that they had seen some visions of butterflies or butterfly people that helped to calm them or keep them safe," Robinson said.
Other students reported seeing white lights. The stories came from students with different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. "It was across the board," she said.
The therapists did not try to dissuade the students. The goal is to help students process what they experienced, Robinson said.
Judith Cohen is not surprised by the children's stories. She is a psychiatrist and medical director at the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Butterfly people — or angels — are a child's way of understanding what happened, why some people died and others lived, she said. Children have no control over whether they are caught in a tornado, but they can control the meaning they take from it. Children see parents as their protective shields against the world, and angels are extensions of that, she said. Children want to believe they will be protected, that things happen for good reasons, that it's not all random, a matter of luck.
"Let them hold onto that, that feeling that there's goodness in the world," Cohen said. "Shouldn't we want them to hold onto that?"
• • •
Emily Huddleston was caught in the tornado. She is 14 and a cheerleader. She has a long scar on her left leg from that night in May. Her family was driving home from her brother's high school graduation. The tornado caught up with them as they neared their house. The Chevy Suburban was tossed in the air. It crashed to the ground two blocks away. No one was seriously hurt, except Emily. A chunk of debris was lodged in her thigh.
She took weeks to recuperate, moving from wheelchair to walker to finally walking on her own. About two months after the tornado, Emily stood in her backyard. It was summer. Her house was gone. The trees were gone. Now she could see the ruined hulk of St. John's Regional Medical Center a few blocks away. A butterfly landed on her arm. It was a black and orange monarch. Other butterflies landed on her too. It kept happening during the summer.
"There'll be some that I can't get to leave me alone," Emily said. She didn't think anything of it. But then she heard the stories of the butterfly people. It all made sense.
"I look at them as my angels," Emily said. "I really do."
• • •
Out by the airport, in a white FEMA trailer in a field filled with neat rows of them, the Morgan family is finishing dinner. Clay and Melissa Morgan and their four children, along with Clay's mother, have lived in the trailer since August. The tornado destroyed their house. The Morgans and their children were at home when it hit. Melissa Morgan huddled in a central hallway with Zoe, 12, Emma, 8, Eli, 5, and Luke, 4. Clay Morgan held a mattress above them. They heard windows breaking. And then the house blew open. They were thrown outside, riding the mattress "like a water slide," Emma said. Everyone was quickly accounted for — except Eli.
"They didn't find me because I was under a carpet for a few minutes," said Eli, as he drew on paper at the kitchen table. He used a red crayon to show what happened: A stick figure lying under the carpet as a tornado shaped like a pizza slice hovered above.
"You were wrapped up like a burrito," his mom said.
"I didn't have any boo-boos," Eli said.
He was found about 20 feet away, rolled inside a green carpet, his parent said. They don't know where the rug came from, although Melissa Morgan suspects it belonged to a neighbor. One night after the tornado, Eli told his parents he saw a man with brown hair when he was inside the carpet. His story quickly was seized on by some people as evidence of something divine.
His mom said Eli mentioned that detail only once. She fears the young boy may have seen the body of the man who lived next-door.
"But God was there," Melissa Morgan said. "I felt it."
• • •
Annelise Pinjuv believes in angels. She is 11. She first heard about angels several years ago from her mom, who told her about the angels she saw in her room as she was succumbing to breast cancer.
Her half sister Maggie McConnell also believes in angels. She is 11. Maggie lost her dad to a stroke a couple years before Annelise lost her mom. Their surviving parents later married.
Sarah McConnell-Pinjuv has worked hard to convince the girls that just because one parent died doesn't mean anything will happen to the other one. She wanted to convince the girls there was some measure of justice in the world, that there was no way a little girl would lose both her parents.
Then the tornado hit. Entire families were lost. A mother lost her husband and two young children. A father lost his wife and young son. Mothers died. So did fathers. And children.
The McConnell-Pinjuvs live in a brick Georgian-style house in an older section of town. It was not hit. But everyone who lived in Joplin suffered. It was only a matter of degree.
The girls' mom, looking for something to take her daughters' minds off the tornado, signed them up to work on the mural project last summer. Annelise and Maggie drew angels, which ended up in the mural. They had heard the butterfly people stories, what the little children said they saw.
And they believe.
"To know they are actually with us," Maggie said, "it feels safer."
• • •
About a month ago, a young mother was driving with her twin 10-year-old daughters to see the mural on Main Street. It was a cloudy day. The sky looked threatening. One of the twins got nervous. She asked about going back home.
This has happened a lot in Joplin since that night in May. No storm looks ordinary now. Adults are stricken by panic attacks at loud noises. Children are sensitive too, like the boy who can no longer stand the sound of a hair dryer.
Parents tell their children all the reasons they will be safe: That tornados are rare, that tornados never hit the same place twice. You have nothing to worry about, they say. And they tell themselves these things, too. But it doesn't seem like enough. Everyone's heart races a bit faster now when the clouds come.
Kate Sturdevant, driving her two girls, tried explaining to her children that summer was over, it was no longer tornado season, that the likelihood of another tornado was very small. But Madison and Brianna were not buying it. They wanted to go home.
So Sturdevant turned to a story she'd heard often since the tornado. It was the story of the butterfly people, how a 4-year-old girl was protected by visitors none of the adults could see.
Her daughters hadn't heard the story before.
Since then, her girls have asked to hear it again and again.
City leaders have been discussing whether to move the whole structure or perhaps simply take parts of the building for public display.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!