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Eye of the Storm


Now, over here in Oakland, Calif., we have earthquakes, and you don't see them coming. The big one, as they say, can hit any time. Out in the Midwest, their big ones come in all shapes and sizes. For our first story, we're going to take you right into the heart of the storm. Please be advised - when SNAP JUDGMENT goes into the heart of the storm, we go into the heart of the storm.

RUBEN CARTER: It started out like every other day. You wake up. You get ready. You get clean, eat breakfast, go to work. I didn't have a car at the time so I borrowed my parents' car and drove it up to the gas station, clocked in and then just started helping people buy what they need. It was a really nice day - warm, sunny. My name is Ruben Carter. I was going to get my master's in psychology. I completed about half the master's program, and then I had to drop out and had to move back home with my family here in Missouri. And so I just took the first job I could find and that was it. Now, here I am working at a gas station, even though I have a bachelor's degree and half a master's, you know. I was like, you know, I really kind of want to be doing more than this.

ISAAC DUNCAN: That morning, we all got up and decided to go into town. It was a nice day, and we were just driving. I'm Isaac Duncan. I'm 27 years old. I had just got - moved back from college. I liked moving home. That summer was kind of, like, in between school and a job so my two best friends were with me. We kind of grew up out in the country so, you know, it was always fun just to drive around and listen to baseball.

STACY LABARGE: I woke up pretty early in the morning. I'm from Kansas City, Mo. My name is Stacy LaBarge. I stopped at the gas station to get a drink. My intentions was to just leave and get out of town. And then this old guy followed me out to my car and he said, you know, ma'am, you need to stay here. There's hell coming. And, you know, I'm pretty stubborn, so I thought, yeah, OK, I'm going (laughter). But he - somehow, I just believed him, and I stayed.

CARTER: The first thing that I remember is the emergency warning system on the radio. You know, there's a possibility of a tornado. Be careful. Pay attention. Be ready in case something happens.

LABARGE: I went up to pay, and I talked to Ruben at that time, and he's chattering about the weather. And he heard it on the radio - oh, it's going to be a tornado. It's just going to be a bad storm.

DUNCAN: It kind of changed really quick in there. Like, that's when the tornado siren started going off. And they broke into the baseball game. There's always been sirens growing up, but I wasn't ever really that scared about it before.

CARTER: When there's a potential of a pretty serious storm, I tend to take that relatively seriously. And so I was getting a little anxious.

LABARGE: Well, I was excited waiting for this tornado that I'm going to capture, you know, on my digital camera.

CARTER: There were people buying beer, buying cigarettes, buying milk, snacks, drinks. At that point, I was like, you know, there are tornado sirens going off, people. Do you really want to die for a pack of cigarettes? And so everybody was just kind of like, oh, I can hear the tornado or my friend's on the phone with me and they're telling me that there's a tornado in this place in town, and it's coming this direction.


DUNCAN: We were like maybe we should just pull into the gas station. So we pulled in, and it's raining really hard, run up to the door and it's locked. And so we start banging on the door, someone runs up and unlocks it. We get inside, there were 18 or 20 people in the very back of the store - a mom kind of holding their kid - like, her little kid was sitting on her lap. Some - a young couple had a new puppy dog that they had just got. But I had my phone real close, you know, 'cause I had been shooting video.


CARTER: Where can we drive this direction?

DUNCAN: I don't know.

CARTER: Right before the tornado hit, there were three or four more people that I let in 'cause they had come up to the door and they were knocking on the door trying to get in.


CARTER: At least probably 10 or 12.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Five, six, seven, eight. There's probably 18 or 19.

CARTER: All total there were 24.

LABARGE: We were all huddled on the back wall. And the wall started - it literally started breathing, so the walls were coming apart. And somebody said hey, you know, what's - what's in that room? And Ruben said it's a beer cooler.

CARTER: People were looking to me to find out what to do just because I was the employee on duty at the time.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, where do you want me to put everybody?

CARTER: I had a hesitation as far as what to do.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On the inside hallway or towards the back by the beer cooler?

CARTER: My head was going crazy with 15,000 ideas. Do we stay here? Do we get up and run? Do we go inside somewhere? I'm petrified that I'm going to do the wrong thing. Several of my customers - one in particular - telling me that the beer cooler is not the place you want to go when you're in a tornado because they're not built for strength and resilience. And it was almost like the glass breaking was the idea crystallizing in my head that says this is what you have to do. Everybody get in the cooler now.


CARTER: Go in the back, the back, get in the back.

DUNCAN: We need...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get inside there. What is that room?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: There's stuff breaking in the back.

DUNCAN: Yeah, I know. I know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Go in the cooler...

DUNCAN: At that point then, everyone jumped up and ran in toward the cooler. People were tripping over each other and just kind of push the person in front of you.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know. I don't know if I left it in the car or what.

CARTER: So there was about a two-foot space between the storage shelves, and it was about 20, 25-feet long. And I was the last person into the cooler. And as I reached out to grab the door, I saw the entire front of the store - windows and everything - just lift off the ground. My only thought in my head was whelp, I'm going to die.


DUNCAN: There was a girl behind me who, right when we got in there, she was just holding onto my shirt really hard, kind of like wadding up to my shirt. Everyone was kind of like holding onto each other really close.


LABARGE: Listen, listen.


LABARGE: I noticed the little kids there screaming, crying, and I went over and, you know, talked to them a little bit. And, you know, I kind of stayed close to them because I was the only one there that had nobody else that I knew. I was just kind of talking to them calmly. And, you know, it's just like a tornado drill in school. We're just going to kind of crouch down and put our hands over our head and everything's going to be OK, you know.

DUNCAN: It was a really small space. The whole front wall of it was just stacked with metal shelves and Miller High Life and just a bunch of cheap cases of beer. I'm pretty claustrophobic, and my knee was underneath one of the metal shelves that had shifted. I hate being trapped like that, like that's one of my nightmares. I was definitely still recording at that point, but I didn't - I wasn't thinking about it at that point. I was just holding it in my hand.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Everybody get down, huddle on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Come on, sit right here.


LABARGE: It wasn't a feeling of wind. I didn't feel wind like I was, you know, going up in a twister.

DUNCAN: Then everyone being just like a huge tangled mess, like, everyone was - had fallen on top of each other. The whole cooler had shifted and, like, all the glass bottles had fallen off and shattered on the ground.




UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: I can't get her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Everybody please just stop.


CARTER: It was just a matter of holding on, trying to keep from getting sucked out into the tornado. And so I just grabbed onto the closest things that I had available to me, one of which was a support leg of some of the shelving that was there. And then the other was the person next to me. So I just - I grabbed on with both hands and held on as hard as I could, holding on for life and trying not to get pulled out. I remember thinking I'm going to get hit in the head with, you know, a piece of wood or part of the building and that's going to be the last feeling that I have.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Unintelligible) Are you in here?

It's OK, It's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: We're good, we're good.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Crying) Oh, my God.

LABARGE: Didn't know how I thought I was going to die, but I just thought, you know, I was just waiting - just waiting for it - OK, when's this going to happen, you know? Let's do this now. Just, I felt scared. I didn't think about - you know how people say oh, you relive your life and you see the white light or, you know, a movie plays in your head - I didn't think once about anything like that. I was just waiting. It was a numbing feeling, I would say.


CARTER: I was saying I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die.


DUNCAN: There was one lady in the cooler that was like Jesus.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Jesus. Oh, help me God. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Help me father.

LABARGE: Very panicked, very - like, I could tell in her voice she was scared to death.

DUNCAN: Man, I never would've thought that I would be, like, a person that died in a tornado, but it's totally about to happen.

CARTER: I don't want to die, but, you know, if I have to die, I have to die and this is it pretty much. I mean, at that point in time, there was no way that I could see that we were going to make it out of that alive.

DUNCAN: Right when I realized that - I kind of, like, came to terms with it - I'm probably going to die in a tornado. We - I looked over at Corey (ph), who was my neighbor, you know, growing up. And he kind of, like, just looked over at me and was like, I love you man. And I was like, love you, too.


DUNCAN: I love everyone. I love everyone, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Yeah, I love all of you guys. We're going to be OK.

DUNCAN: I love you.

CARTER: That just sort of started at one end of the cooler and went all the way down to the other end.

LABARGE: That just felt like - even though I didn't know anybody, it just felt like a connection.

CARTER: I can honestly say I felt a great deal of love for all of those people 'cause you always think, oh, people are going to be out for themselves, especially if they're panicked or in danger or whatever, and that was one of those moments where you realize that it wasn't going to be like that. So it was very peaceful.


DUNCAN: Is everyone OK below me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: I'm here, I'm OK.

DUNCAN: All right. I'm trying not to lay on someone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Somebody's on my back.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Am I hurting anybody, ma'am?

CARTER: She's under me.


CARTER: Immediately after the tornado had passed, we realized that, you know, at least we weren't in any more immediate danger. The only place we could see light was at the back of the cooler where it had - the roof had actually split open from the wall. And, so we decided to climb out through the back - up the back wall and out through the hole in the roof. And so we built a makeshift ladder out of cases of beer.

DUNCAN: When you first stuck your head out, it was just, like, really crazy because all the trees were gone, and when we turned around - like, the building was pretty much completely gone. One of the only things that was - had any form was, kind of, the cooler that we were in.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: We're not moving anywhere. We're not moving anywhere. The building - the structure of the building may not be safe to move much.

CARTER: I don't know, there really aren't any words for it other than just, oh, my God, we lived through that.

When I realized we had all survived, my first thought was, oh, God, what if I missed somebody? What if somebody else was out there that I didn't see, didn't notice, couldn't get to. That was honestly one of the scariest things I ever thought in my life.

LABARGE: I climbed out of there, and they helped me out. When I landed, it was crazy (laughter) - like it felt like I had jumped into another world. It was crazy. People running, cars going down the road with, you know, people with their heads out of their window, you know, just - everybody - it was chaos. It was chaos. You know, it just looked like an atomic bomb went off.

CARTER: I mean, there was smoke going up all over the place, there were cars in trees. We couldn't see anything that had not been destroyed. You're looking at the store afterward and the small space that we were in - it's pretty amazing to me that we were all hurt as little as we were. It did actually feel like a miracle.

This is a storm that hit Joplin, Miss. on May 22, 2011. It was an EF5 tornado. It was almost a mile wide - killed 158 people and injured 1,150 people.

DUNCAN: I don't think I'm willing to chalk it up to, like, fate or anything like that, but I don't think that any force or God or anything like that chose for me to survive. I know for a fact that, like, other people around town got into coolers like that, and it didn't always turn out as good as it did for us.

LABARGE: You know, everybody kind of worked together and kept saying I love you afterwards. You know, it was kind of like a relief. And that's why, you know, probably, the I love you's came about because we were like, wow, we made it, you know. Thank goodness, we made it.

WASHINGTON: That story's produced as part of a Joplin project - collaboration between SNAP JUDGMENT and Esquire Magazine. It was created by SNAP's own Anna Sussman and Eliza Smith, along with Luke Dittrich, who first chronicled life inside the cooler for Esquire in 2011. Find the link to Luke's original Esquire article on classics.esquire.com. Leon Morimoto rocked that original score. And Isaac Duncan - well, Isaac recorded that entire adventure inside the beer cooler, inside the tornado. Thanks for that, Isaac. Thanks for the trip. And I'm happy to tell you that all of our survivors are thriving. And you remember our man, Ruben Carter, the hero of the day? Let's check in with him real quick.



CARTER: Hi, Glynn.

WASHINGTON: How are you doing?

CARTER: I am doing very well. How are you?

WASHINGTON: Fantastic, so, Ruben, tell us, how's the gas station going?

CARTER: Gas station is going well. I'm hoping to get back into my school field line of work when I move to Texas in August. But, for now, the gas station is going very well.

WASHINGTON: Well, gas station, new line of work, whatever, Ruben, we hear you've got something that you want to say to a special person in your life, am I right?

CARTER: Yes, sir.

WASHINGTON: Ruben, what do you want to say?

CARTER: Every so often, somebody comes into your life that makes your life better just by being with them. And Kim is that person for me. And I want to make the rest of my life better by asking her to marry me.

WASHINGTON: OK, Ruben. I hope - we all hope it goes according to plan.

CARTER: I hope so, too.

WASHINGTON: Right on. All right, SNAPPERS. We're about to go now, live, to Ruben's living room, where he has a secret microphone set up, and he's about to pop the very big question.


CARTER: I love you. You make me happier than anybody I've ever known in my life. You make my life better by being in it. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?

KIM: Yeah.


KIM: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: She said yes, SNAPPERS. Congratulations, Ruben. Congratulations, Kim. We, at SNAP JUDGMENT, couldn't be happier for you guys, and we are so honored that we could be a part of your special moment. We wish you the very, very best and all happiness. Now, I don't want a bunch of marriage proposals 'cause even if you go through all hell in a tornado that rips and sanctifies your love, understand that you're second in line, behind Ruben and Kim.

When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we're going to show you how to make some easy money, baby. Don't worry, everything is on the up and up. SNAP JUDGMENT, the Caught Up episode continues in just a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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