JOPLIN, Missouri — As emergency workers in Joplin searched Thursday for more than 230 people listed as missing after a tornado tore through the city, one was sitting on a wooden chair outside the wreckage of her home, cuddling her cat.
Sally Adams, 75, said neighbors rescued her Sunday after the storm destroyed her house and took her to a friend’s home. When The Associated Press told her she was on the missing list, Adams laughed and said, “Get me off of there!”
Missouri officials had said they believed many of the missing were alive and safe but simply hadn’t been in touch with friends and family, in part because cell phone service has been spotty. The AP found that was the case with at least a dozen of the 232 still unaccounted for Thursday. They included two survivors staying at a hotel, six that a relative said were staying with friends and one that a former employee said had been moved from his nursing home.
Stephen Whitehead, of the Red Cross’ Safe and Well registry, which keeps track of the accounted-for, said that since the missing list came out earlier Thursday, he has learned that at least nine are people who are dead. Whitehead said he did not know whether those nine were among the known fatalities.
Adams said she lost her cell phone in the storm and had no way of contacting her family to let them know she was OK. She was placed on the missing list after relatives called a hot line and posted Facebook messages saying she was missing.
Her son, Bill Adams, said he told authorities his mother was alive after he learned she was safe, yet she remained on their unaccounted-for list Thursday afternoon.
Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said he wouldn’t call Adams’ listing a mistake and finding her is “a good thing.” He urged other survivors to check the list and call if they see their names.
The AP found Mike and Betty Salzer at a hotel being used by visiting journalists.
“Well, for Heaven’s sakes,” Betty Salzer, 74, said when the AP showed her the list.
The couple have been staying at the hotel since their home was destroyed Sunday. Betty Salzer said their names might have come from a Facebook message her daughter posted before they reached her Monday morning.
Not all of the stories of the missing will end so well.
Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr announced Thursday that the death toll had risen to 126.
Some of their families waited Thursday for their remains to be released. One victim’s funeral was scheduled for Friday morning in Galena, Kansas, and other services were scheduled for the weekend.
But some of the bodies have yet to be identified. Andrea Spillars, deputy director and general counsel of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said officials know some of the people unaccounted for are dead, but she wouldn’t say how many or when the names of the deceased would be released.
Chris Haddock, 23, said his father was one of the deceased on the missing list. A commercial truck driver found 62-year-old Paul Haddock’s body in his pickup truck behind a flattened Walmart.
“They found his wallet and his cell phone in his pocket,” Chris Haddock said. “That’s how they know it’s him.”
In another example of potential overlap, 12 residents of the Greenbriar nursing home are on the missing list. But nursing home administrators reported earlier that 11 people died in the tornado; only one was known missing.
One of the 12 is Dorothy Hartman, an Alzheimer’s patient. Pamela McBroom, 49, who lives near the nursing home, said one of her daughters used to work there, developed a soft spot for Hartman and introduced them. Hartman was frail “but very positive and full of life,” she said.
McBroom said she and her 16-year-old daughter were hiding in a closet when the tornado tore their walls and roof away. Her walls gone, McBroom could see the mayhem at Greenbriar.
“I could see people flying out of the nursing home by my house,” McBroom said. “I could hear them screaming. Just screaming. It was horrible.”
Nursing home officials haven’t said whether Hartman was one of the 11 killed.
Identification of the deceased has been slow because officials have taken extra precautions since a woman misidentified one victim as her son in the chaotic hours after the tornado hit, Newton County coroner Mark Bridges said.
“That’s the reason why we didn’t release anybody else until we at least had dental records,” Bridges said.
A federal forensics team of 50 to 75 disaster mortuary specialists has been at work in six refrigerated trucks, collecting DNA samples for testing, taking fingerprints and looking for tattoos, body piercings, moles and other distinctive marks. Bridges expected as many as 19 bodies would be released Thursday.
He said he’s been explaining the reason for the delays to grieving families “all day long.”
“It breaks my heart,” he said.
Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier contributed to this report.