Joplin Tornado Takes a Son and Spares a Father

The CFO’s fall newsletter is out, and features the Norton family’s story of loss and survival in the Joplin tornado. A scholarship fund has been established in memory of Will Norton, a member of the Joplin Class of 2011 graduating on that May day.

“He was just gone”

The Tornado’s Wrath Claimed Will Norton, But His Legacy Survives

As Mark Norton lay broken in a crowded, chaotic operating room, Dr. Rex Peterson leaned in close to tell him the morphine supply was depleted and he was going to experience more pain than he’d ever known as the surgeon prepared to re-set the bones protruding from his left leg.

But it hardly compared to the even more exquisite pain a week later when Pastor Aaron Brown had to lean in again at Mark’s hospital bedside in the pre-dawn hours to tell him his son Will’s body had been positively identified after a frantic week of friends, family, strangers and search teams looking for the popular Joplin teenager who vanished into the twister.

An aspiring director whose career was kickstarted with more than 2 million views of his prolific YouTube videos, Will Norton was headed to a prestigious film program at Chapman University near Disneyland. He’d traveled to 34 states and 15 countries, and was learning to fly. His tennis team went to state finals and he went to leadership programs like Boy’s State; he was just at one in Washington, D.C., when Bin Laden was killed and he joined the throngs outside of the White House.

“He was always just a great kid to be around. He made good choices, he never gave us a moment’s worry,” Mark says. “He was a good student. He volunteered his time. He made friends easily because he was real considerate.”

In what became one of the most dramatic stories in the tornado’s aftermath, TV viewers, newspaper readers, Facebook and Twitter users the world over would follow the search for Will that began on May 22 with  father and son driving home, toward a party waiting for the new Joplin High School graduate. After the ceremony at Missouri Southern, Mark had sent his wife, Trish, and daughter, Sara, ahead and said he’d ride with Will. The blaring storm sirens had stopped; radio reports said weather was hitting Carl Junction to the north and they were heading south.

They were about five blocks from home, when the initial throes of the EF5 engulfed Will’s Hummer H3, the sturdiest of vehicles, his parents thought, when they’d considered a car for Will. The pressure blew the windows out as they pulled over near Schifferdecker and Sunset  to hunker down, Mark’s arm pressing against his son.  As Will prayed aloud, the storm’s rotation raised and rolled the Hummer, and his seatbelt snapped. When it landed and the blackness cleared, Mark was pinned inside battered, but conscious. Will was gone.

“I called for him and he didn’t answer,” Mark says. “You think life’s kind of over at that point. You pretty well know you’ve lost your son. I didn’t know if my house was destroyed, too. I was having problems breathing. I can’t even say I was afraid to die, even though I thought I was going to. You look over and your son’s gone and that’s all you can think about, really.”

A stranger soon found Mark and rescuers arrived with the Jaws of Life to free him; they applied a tourniquet to his ripped arterial bicep, stapled his torn scalp and loaded him into an ambulance. The paramedics stopped to pick up more storm victims, eight or 10 in all, as dazed survivors helped push debris from the path they cut around downed power lines and through residential yards.

Sara, who returned to the University of Arkansas this fall as a senior studying finance, had been on the phone with Mark as the storm hit the car. She thought she knew about where they would be as the celebration became a search party. Mark’s sister found the car two or three hours later and it was hours more before Trish and Sara found Mark, by then in surgery at Freeman Hospital. When they finally saw him in recovery, Trish fainted.

Mark’s initial fears that Will couldn’t have survived being sucked into the swirling debris gave way to a semblance of hope in the following days blurred by more surgeries, morphine and hazy consciousness. Searchers scoured the massive debris, tracked leads, and checked hospital logs across several states, buoyed by various descriptions of a young man, without ID or unconscious, who might have been admitted or transferred at one distant hospital or another. Anything seemed plausible in those surreal first days. They even dredged several private ponds near the area where Mark and Will had pulled over and the SUV eventually landed, about 300 feet apart.

On day five, the debris having settled in the water, they dredged once more; this time they recovered a young man’s body, identified via dental records as Will Norton. A cousin serving as the family’s contact called Pastor Aaron Brown, who left for the hospital to tell Mark.

Mark recalls a later conversation where he tried to explain to Pastor Brown the loud, clear, but unusual mix of prayers, scripture and praise he heard Will reciting as they roiled in the storm.

“There have been one or two other instances of that from other families,” Brown says. “I think in those moments something supernatural began to happen. God wanted to reassure family members that it’s okay, he’s with me and I’m real and I want you to have hope.”

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Joplin High School teacher Kristi McGowan, who spoke at Will’s memorial service, says he had a maturity and empathy uncommon in a typical teenager.

“He always thought about the other person and that’s what was so neat about Will,” she says, recalling how he’d pick up donuts for class, bring his car around so kids wouldn’t get wet in the rain, take food to a classmate who was sick. “He always wanted everyone to have their moment. That’s why everybody was his friend. I had him in class twice a day for a whole year and never heard him say anything negative. Never did I hear Will Norton speak a bad word about anybody.”

She also admired how much he appreciated his close family, speaking highly of his parents, eager to talk about family vacations. “He lived a full life. With Will, there were just no regrets.”

For the memorial service  –  held two weeks after graduation day – Mark was able to leave the hospital in a wheelchair, and then go home to continue healing his 15 broken bones, torn and infected scalp and bicep injury.

“I didn’t have internal damage like so many people did,” says Mark, who returned to his job as manager of the Great Southern Travel office in Joplin on July 1. “It was all structural. Compared to what a lot of people had, I really wasn’t that bad.”

On his way home from the service, he got his first look at the devastation to his native Joplin. It shook him, he says, to compound his family’s personal tragedy with the enormous scale of the community’s loss. Still, he is resolute about Joplin’s future.

“It’s fortunate that not more people died when you think about it,” he says. “It could have been thousands. When you look at the complete devastation of these homes, I don’t know how anybody in that path could really survive. But yes, Joplin will be back – no doubt.”

And, in a sense, so will Will. The Nortons attended an August ceremony at Chapman University where a presidential scholarship was named in his honor. Another scholarship fund established through the Community Foundation of Southwest Missouri, Inc., will help other aspiring Joplin media students. The Facebook page set up to track his search still has more than 50,000 followers. Donors are supporting the Humane Society and Samaritan’s Purse in his name. More than 87,000 have watched his sister and best friend Sara’s perspective of the tragedy on YouTube.

“Nothing’s going to replace him, of course, but it helps to know these are things Will’s going to be proud of,” Mark says. “He’d want us to continue to find ways to help and give back.”

The Nortons’ friends, family and faith help sustain them.  As Pastor Brown says: “They are grieving deeply, but they also are able to see the good that has come about through this.”

Mark describes Trish, whom he married 25 years ago in October, as taking things one day at a time while planning to get back into volunteer work and possibly teaching: “She cried every day just when she found out he was going to go 2,000 miles away to school.”

“The good news is we don’t have regrets,” he says.  “It does help knowing that he knows we loved him. We told him that every day. We tried to protect him. We bought him the safest car we could think of … but he was only meant to be here 18 years. It’s just that the kid had so much future and he’s not being able to finish up life like he could have done here on earth. You always have these questions of why. It’s not our job to question why; it’s our job to have faith.”

Memorial  Scholarship

The Norton family established the Will Norton Memorial Scholarship Fund to honor their son. The first scholarship will be awarded next spring to a Joplin senior interested in pursuing Will’s passion for a career in film, TV or media.

Anyone interested in supporting the scholarship fund can donate online at: www.cfozarks.org/donate, or by sending a check noted for this fund to: Community Foundation of the Ozarks, P.O. Box 8960, Springfield, MO, 65801.

To learn more about Will’s life and story, visit his sites:

 

 

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