In the nursery of St. John's Regional Medical Center, newborns napped in bassinets. Ventilators hummed in an intensive-care unit.
In the emergency room, nurse Tracy Hernandez checked an older woman for a stroke, one of the few serious cases in the ER all day.
In an operating room down a second-floor hallway, orthopedic surgeon James "Dusty" Smith opened an infected hip.
One floor above, John Seay, a 60-year-old mechanic from Welch, Okla., visited with his 83-year-old mother. Frail from congestive heart failure, she doubted she'd be getting better and had picked out a pink dress for her burial.
Then, in the west, the air began to spin.
The announcement over the hospital speakers warned of a potential tornado. Prepare.
No one panicked. Such calls are routine in Joplin, a zinc- and lead-mining town carved from the rock and fields of Tornado Alley.
Nurses pulled shades over windows to shield from flying debris. They rolled equipment from the halls, on the off chance patients would have to be moved there.
Off chance, because this storm wasn't expected to hit them. Visitors watched it on television with nonchalance. Radar showed funnel clouds tracking north.
In a neighborhood across from St. John's, Amanda and Bradley German sat in a friend's home with their sons, Brody, 6, and James, 9, heedless of the weather alert. Small hail fell. The friend tossed hailstones playfully into the house.
"We were joking about it," Amanda German would say. "We hear the storm sirens all the time."
What no one anticipated was the dark monster developing to the west, two miles outside their windows.
The sky turned the green of a violent bruise.
Execute Condition Gray: Get patients to safety!
On May 22 an EF-5 tornado slammed to the ground in Joplin, its 200-mph winds scouring a three-quarter-mile-wide, six-mile-long band of devastation.
When it was over, this city of 50,000 would reel, broken and bloodied.
For the watching world, the image of the hollowed shell of St. John's was ground zero. For 115 years, the hospital system created by the Catholic order of the Sisters of Mercy healed the community's illnesses and injuries. In seconds, the nine-story symbol of the city's strength and caring, built and expanded since 1968, would stand gravely injured itself.
Yet in many ways, the story of what happened inside the walls of St. John's might better stand as a microcosm of the horrors, heroism and humanity that played out across Joplin that night.
Witness upon witness recounts a stream of "walking wounded," individuals impaled by wood, glass or metal, limbs missing, flesh torn from their bodies, lurching toward the hospital. Many remain haunted by the carnage they saw.
But that night at the hospital, they said, also will be remembered as one of the city's proudest.
There was the surgeon who operated by flashlight as the hospital crashed around him. The ER doc who plunged a chest tube through the ribs of a young man to keep him from dying.
Nurses used their bodies to blanket vulnerable patients from wind-hurled debris. A floor tech plucked a flying man from the air. Employees wielded axes to free drugs from locked cabinets.
And then there were the strangers. Hundreds rushed in convoys of pickup trucks, descending on the hospital to speed the wounded away.
Hospital visitors left the sides of their dead and dying loved ones to carry fragile patients down blackened hallways, guided by the dim light of cell phones.
"We did what we had to do," said John Seay.
At 5:41 p.m., the tornado descends, a black, twisting wall on the western horizon. It splinters houses, strips trees, heaves cars. Hailstones crash through glass like sledgehammers. Rain pounds down in a stinging curtain.
Minutes away, St. John's waits — 183 patients in its 367 licensed beds; some 25 patients in the ER; 100 staff on duty; an unknown number of visitors in the patient rooms, halls and waiting areas.
In the ER, Angie Abner, 40 — a paramedic who became a nurse only a year ago, and who has missed work the last two days because of food poisoning — has been doing triage. Now, minutes after the call Execute Condition Gray, she is struggling to get patients to safety, into hallways and away from windows.
People, having grown too used to these warnings and then seeing storms peter out, refuse to move.
"Folks, this is for your own safety," Abner belts, emphatic. "You have to listen to me!"
A man waves her off and tries to leave.
"No, sir!" she snaps. "You are my responsibility and you're not going anywhere!"
Upstairs, in the third-floor intensive-care unit, nurse Tammy Fritchey, a 27-year-veteran, places blankets and pillows over patients who are too sick to move, the ones on ventilators. With two other nurses, she will soon huddle in an interior office.
"God," she'll pray silently, holding tight to another nurse. "Please help our patients."
On other floors, patients able to walk are placed in hardback chairs or wheelchairs and lined up down the hallways. Others are rolled out in their beds.
Condition Grays are practiced as drills at least a dozen times a year. All hospitals, as part of their accreditation, have emergency codes and plans for storms, abducted babies, gunmen on the premises.
But this is no drill.
Wind roars with such force the steel beams supporting the hospital's top floors twist 4 inches.
Glass explodes from every window; the air turns cold; lights flicker and die. The building jolts and is cloaked in blackness. Both generators, main and backup, have been blasted from their foundations.
Water pipes burst, showering everything. Ceilings cave; wires hang in the air like spider webs and spill on the floor. Explosive natural gas spews from broken pipes on the lower floors.
The wind's power is tremendous. Connie Lansdown, the hysterectomy patient, watches the storm yank a man from a reclining chair and drag him down the hall.
"This is no place to be!" she thinks, hurrying into a windowless room and pressing her shoulder against the door.
X-ray machines, respirators, computer monitors and doors ripped from their hinges ricochet down the halls, spin and crash through the air.
Fathers in the nursery drape themselves over their newborns.
In her bed, John Seay's mother is being sucked down the corridor. Knocked to a knee, he covers her with one arm.
"I gotcha," he says.
He drives his foot into the floor to stop the movement, but can't. They sail down the hall and crash.
He looks at his mother. Her eyes are shut; her oxygen mask is still on. She looks OK.
"I'm going to check on the others," he tells her and leaves to search for their relatives.
Surgeon Dusty Smith also worries about his wife and their twin 5-year-old sons. His mother's town, Tuscaloosa, Ala., was devastated a month before by just this kind of storm.
Seconds ago, before the OR door burst open, the white bony crown of the patient's hip lay beneath Smith's scalpel. The surgery team's ears popped. When the lights went out, a patient care tech grabbed a blue flashlight, shining its beam into the incision.
Now, water 3 inches deep begins to saturate their shoes, soaking their scrubs. Ceiling tiles rain down.
And then it's over.
In 45 seconds, the tornado all but eviscerated the hospital. Neighbors will later discover crumpled wheelchairs caught in the debris of their homes. Medical records and X-rays will be found nearly 100 miles away.
In the ER: chaos.
Patients are screaming as nurses Angie Abner, Tracy Hernandez and others emerge from the rubble. Water mixes with blood.
Hernandez looks out the gaping hole that was the emergency room entrance. A helicopter lies on its side like a dead beast. Next to it, in the pouring rain, is a female deer.
"It was just standing out there," Hernandez would recall. "Just terrified. Trembling. In shock."
A young man clambers over the ER doors, an arc of blood from the brachial artery of his right arm spurting 3 feet in front of him.
"Where did you come from?" Abner shouts.
But her mind also is on co-worker Shilo Cook, the pregnant nurse. She wants to know if Cook and her baby are OK. What about her other colleagues? Alive? Dead?
"The park!" the man says, meaning Cunningham Park across the street.
Patients already inside the ER mostly seem uninjured. But already what seems like hundreds of wounded are staggering toward the hospital.
Teenage girls, battered in the storm after Joplin High School's graduation, stumble and limp toward the hospital in pretty summer dresses soaked in blood.
Citywide, texts flash on the phones of hospital staff riding out the storm in their homes: St. John's has been hit.
Many don't wait for the word. In their cars and pickups, they weave past downed trees and drive over tangled power lines.
Also mobilizing: the staff of Freeman Health System, the competing hospital in town. Less than a mile south of St. John's, it is virtually untouched by the storm.
Freeman's ER has four physicians on this night. Within hours, 135 doctors will flood the hospital, 110 from Freeman, others from St. John's and the region.
Upstairs, John Seay's mother lies in her bed in the third-floor hallway where he'd left her for just a few minutes.
For years, Seay has helped care for ill family — his sister, after she had a stroke; his father, disabled from World War II. His dad was at Normandy, in the third wave at Omaha Beach. Seay himself is a Vietnam vet, a sailor.
Seay's mother doubted she'd get better. She'd given her rings to her granddaughters and wore a "do not resuscitate" bracelet on her wrist. Everyone hoped she'd have more than a few days to live.
Seay reaches for her arm. It's limp. He bends down and looks in her face. He touches her shoulder.
Nothing. She's gone.
He turns and leaves her there in the corridor. All around, people need help.
Outside, scores of Joplin residents in pickups, and others from Oklahoma and all around Missouri, load patients and nurses into the truck beds. They speed off to Freeman. School buses roll up to the hospital to take more patients away.
Dozens of ambulances from towns and cities more than 100 miles in every direction converge on the town. At intersections, their flashing lights draw the injured, limping, dazed, moving slowly, as one Joplin medic would say, "like something out of a zombie movie."
A triage center at Memorial Hall is overwhelmed in a matter of minutes. Another is opened at McAuley Catholic High School. Helicopters arrive from throughout the region.
As a sign of grit and resilience, St. John's one week later erected a tent field hospital — dubbed "Mercy M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H" by staff.
The first surgery patient that day was a little boy with an abscess on his rear end.
Sisters of Mercy officials have vowed to build a new hospital over the next 2½ years, though likely not on the site of the old. They promise a smaller, 150-bed facility before that.
The tornado's death toll citywide has risen to 156. Many people still lie hospitalized and in critical condition. Joplin doctors are already seeing serious infections from wounds that were patched in haste out of dire need.
Six people died at St. John's during the storm; at least three have died of their injuries since.