Hundreds of students and faculty from Pittsburg State University’s College of Technology are volunteering their time to help Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build seven houses in seven days in Joplin. But other students, including a survivor of the May 22 tornado, are stepping up to help as well.

Hundreds of students and faculty from Pittsburg State University’s College of Technology are volunteering their time to help Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build seven houses in seven days in Joplin. But other students, including a survivor of the May 22 tornado, are stepping up to help as well.

Survivor helps rebuild
“If you have a cell phone, call your parents. It’s coming straight for us!”

Those chilling words from his boss still rattle around in Mitch Albright’s head. A 22-year-old Pittsburg State University construction management major, Albright was a new employee at Academy Sports in Joplin when the tornado ripped through the city on May 22.

As the storm grew violent, Albright said he sought shelter in the back of the store with co-workers and shoppers.

“We knew the storm was coming, we just didn’t know where,” Albright said. “Before we knew it the lights were flickering. I thought it was over for me, but everybody made it out of there OK.”

Today, Albright, who lives in Galena with his family, is putting his own life back together. He transferred to Pitt State from Missouri Southern State University to learn the skills he would need for a career in construction. Sitting in his dining room Wednesday morning, he said participating in the building project was only natural. He joined about 50 other students who worked overnight Wednesday and Thursday morning to take part in the Tyvek insulation wrap of the homes.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Albright said. “It’s a way to give back and help families move back into their neighborhoods.”

Like many of the tornado survivors, Albright sometimes struggles to retell his story.

About 50 people were scattered at the back of the store in the break room and back hallway. A few had taken shelter in the restrooms, including a mother and her young child. Albright was in the hallway and as he crouched down to cover his head, the freight-train sounds of the deadly tornado filled his ears.

As the rain and hail pelted down and the air pressure fluctuated, the building began shaking. Pipes burst and objects started flying. Albright caught a large ceiling tile and used it for cover. A big metal door on the back of the building blew off its hinges. In the midst of the tornado’s howl, Albright could hear the screams of the people next to him. The storm chewed up the roof and the rain poured in.

“You’re listening to the panicking and screaming and you’re thinking it’s the end,” Albright said. “Nothing in the world can prepare you for that.”
 He and a friend were some of the first survivors to crawl out of the flattened store.

“My phone was dead,” Albright said. “My girlfriend was finally able to get a hold of me through a friend. When we got out I didn’t know where I was. Nothing looked the same.”

Ironically, the tornado helped Albright choose his current career path. A cousin had been talking to him about his success working in the field of construction, which led Albright to think about pursuing a degree in construction management. After surviving the May 22 tornado, his mind was settled. Albright transferred to PSU this fall.

“Construction jobs are going to be around forever,” he said.

Nursing students offer their hands
One group of students may not be familiar with the tools of the construction trade, but they think they can help the building project in their own way. About 50 students and faculty in PSU’s nursing degree programs worked the chilly overnight shift Thursday and Friday, doing everything from passing out bottled water to carrying supplies and clearing the sites of scrap lumber.

Faith Naccarato, a senior nursing student from Frontenac, said their job was to help the professionals and PSU Construction Management students who have been working non-stop on the houses.

“These people have been donating their time, so the least we can do is donate our time to help them.”

Gena Coomes, an instructor in PSU’s Department of Nursing and an organizer of the volunteer effort, said their efforts were a natural extension of some of the work that faculty and students performed in the hours and days after the tornado.

“A lot of us were able to help with triage areas at community shelters and at the Leggett and Platt Arena on May 22 after the tornado,” Coomes said, “so it was only fitting for us to come back and help with the rebuild.”

Bailey Bloomingdale, a senior from Olathe, said working at the site made them feel like a part of the community.

“A lot of us did our clinicals at St. John’s last semester,” Bloomingdale said. “To see it destroyed has been hard, but to come back and help the community rebuild has been wonderful.”

Ron Womble contributed to this report.