JOPLIN, MO. • They had to find Skyular. They wanted the baby boy home.
The 16-month-old disappeared from his mother's arms and into the massive tornado that two days earlier had destroyed so much of this city. His mother and father had been taken to a hospital, severely injured. Skyular, a small boy with light brown hair and big brown eyes, was gone.
His relatives were going to try to find him.
It would be a frantic day of false starts and conflicting reports, of searching hospitals, online message boards and missing person rolls — all to try to solve the mystery of one of the estimated 1,500 people still unaccounted for after the tornado.
Skyular's relatives would dig through the debris themselves, terrified of what the rescue teams might have missed and they might find. They did not have a choice.
"The boy's mother is screaming for her baby," Skyular's grandmother Milissa Burns said.
Early Tuesday morning, Burns and two other relatives walked into a Red Cross shelter and missing persons center at Missouri Southern State University. At the same time, the boy's great-aunt, Pam Tate, headed to a makeshift morgue.
Burns, 39, did not glance at the 18 pages taped to a wall listing people found 'safe and well." She knew her grandson was not among them. She went to the desk of the missing persons coordinator. She found a line. One woman was looking for her brother who had been in the hospital hit by the tornado. Another woman waited to learn what had happened to two friends from her church who lived in now-flattened apartments.
In minutes, both women learned their missing persons were OK.
Then it was Skyular's family's turn.
Burns' husband, Rusty Burton, quickly explained that they — a grandmother, stepgrandfather, aunt and great-aunt — were looking for the boy because his parents were hospitalized. He mentioned this because some people had been hesitant to help anyone who was not the child's parent. He knew to spell out Skyular Logsdon's name for clarity. He had the date of birth: Jan. 19, 2010. And he knew to mention that Skyular, born prematurely, was small for his age. So a rescuer or nurse might think he's 6 months or a year.
Behind Burton, Skyular's aunt, Tsvia Tate, clutched two photos of the boy. In both, he was dressed in a red Santa suit.
The Red Cross had no record of Skyular Logsdon.
Burton and the others walked outside to find the great-aunt.
"I'm really kind of scared to think right now," Burton, 30, said.
His wife's cellphone rang. It was Pam Tate.
"Oh, thank God!" Burns said, turning to the others. "He's not there! He's not in the morgue."
"He's not there," Burton said, taking a deep breath and rubbing his eyes.
"I told you guys Skyular is going to be okay," Tate said.
They called Skyular's mother, Carol Jo Tate, 18, to let her know. And they climbed into a red minivan for the drive to the house where Skyular was last seen.
Burton drove, the only one of the group he thought was still capable of driving after so little sleep and so much stress. He passed through police checkpoints and along streets clogged with small trees and power lines. As he neared the house, at Maiden Lane and 26th Street, just a few blocks from the ruined husk of St. John's Medical Center, he sped up, pulled into a parking lot and jumped from the minivan.
"Where was the house?" asked Tate, the aunt.
Burton pointed at a truck wrapped around a tree and a foundation with a single row of cinder blocks in a debris pile that extended in every direction into the distance.
"Oh, my God," Tate said, beginning to cry.
Burton, in a red T-shirt and blue shorts, was running now. Up the street. Onto the front porch. Into what was once the home's front room.
"Oh, my God," Tate repeated. "Oh, my God."
Burton immediately began to work, tossing broken pieces of wood and metal. He bent to lift a jagged section of tar-paper roof. He leaned in with his shoulder, grunting.
"Missy," he shouted to his wife. "Come here and look under this!"
She peered under the roof section. Nothing. Just a crumpled gas meter. Burton tossed more debris, searching with urgency. He tossed more.
A woman walked up to Tate and asked her what they were doing.
"There's a 16-month-old baby and we can't find him," Tate said.
"Is it the same one they're looking for over there?" the woman asked, pointing to a crew in yellow safety vests picking through a pile about 100 feet away. The cadaver dogs picked up a scent down there, she said.
Burton ignored the other scene. He continued to grab and toss pieces of the house. But Skyular's grandmother rushed down the hill, her shoes sinking into sticky orange mud. She walked to the edge of a growing, expectant crowd. But the searchers soon discovered the cadaver dogs had been smelling dental impressions scattered in the debris from a nearby dentist's office. The crowd evaporated. The searchers moved on.
The grandmother walked over to Tate.
"I don't know what to think now," she said.
As Burton picked and searched, people stopped to help. Five respiratory therapists, with work gloves on their hands and stethoscopes around their necks, poked through the wreckage. Three men in jeans joined in. The formal rescue teams that had been in this area the day before were gone, searching other hard-hit places. This neighborhood had been searched several times, with cadaver dogs and live-victim dogs poring over the pieces.
But Burton was not satisfied. He and the others found two tiny cowboy boots that Skyular liked to wear. They found baby clothes. Diapers. Packages of baby wipes. A white baby blanket. A crumpled playpen. And they found two dead dogs, pets of Skyular's father, Corderro Logsdon, 22.
Burton jumped up. He held a tiny green stuffed bear, muddy and wet.
"Missy, remember this?" he called to his wife. "I won it from Wal-Mart? It was Skyular's."
His wife nodded.
Then Burton walked away, stopping in a field of muddy orange, and began to pace, the mud accumulating with each stride. He moved toward a massive power pole lying on the ground, a few feet of debris trapped underneath. He tugged at a red and green carpet. He pulled and pulled until enough carpet came loose so that a small hole emerged under the light pole. He poked his head in. He stepped back and said something softly, then louder, but still unclear.
"I told my grandson that if he could just make one little noise where I could hear him …." Burton said, turning away. He looked at the ground. He was silent.
He turned toward the house just as a woman appeared over the hill nearby. She suggested the family look online at missing persons boards. The Red Cross had one, she said. But the family had looked at those. They had set up a Facebook page — "Bring Skyular Logsdon home." They had gotten Skyular's name and photo on TV.
Then the woman said a police officer had found a baby boy here on Monday. "He's in Freeman," she said, referring to another Joplin hospital.
The woman sounded certain.
The grandmother said they had checked that hospital last night.
But Burton seized on the information.
"Well, let's go to Freeman, and I'll tell them I'm not leaving until I see that baby," he said.
He was running again, away from the house, toward the minivan, finally willing to leave. The others followed, stopping to cover the dogs in blankets.
"If the hospital says it's not him, I want to be dropped off back here to search for Skyular some more," he announced in the minivan.
The great-aunt, Pam Tate, looked out the window.
"Please, please let it be him," she said.
The minivan's tires screeched as Burton made the last turn into the hospital. At the front desk, the grandmother explained why they were there. A hospital worker volunteered to take them to the nursery and neonatal intensive care wards.
"Dear lord, let it be him," Burton said in the elevator.
The hospital worker asked the family to stay in the waiting room while she checked.
No Skyular Logsdon. No unidentified baby boys.
"All the babies that we have are accounted for," she said.
And then she added: "I hate to discuss this with you — there's a temporary morgue at MSSU."
Burton told her they had already been there.
They were running out of options. They had a list of dozens of hospitals where injured tornado victims were taken. They had called most of them.
But Burton was not ready to give up. None of them was.
Skyular was out there, somewhere.
And they were going to bring him home.