An EF5 tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, on 22 May 2011. The tornado, a mile wide, killed 158 people in this town of 50,789 and injured 1,150; insurance damage claims reached toward $3 billion. When the storm was gone, and dazed residents started to shift through the rubble of what was once their lives, stories, strange stories began to seep through the horror. Stories of hope. Stories of the Butterfly People.
The tornado struck on a Sunday, flattening nearly 1,000 homes, and destroying neighborhoods. Businesses toppled. A big swath of the town looked like a war had been waged there. It had. Nature won.
The EF5 almost claimed cousins Lage Grigsby, 14, and Mason Lillard, 10, that day, according to a story on Joplin’s KTTS FM. Rescue workers pulled Grigsby from the rubble of what had been a big box hardware store. Doctors at Freeman Hospital West were so certain Grigsby was dead they sent him to the morgue. Lillard’s doctor was sure she’d be dead if the metal debris that punctured her body had been even an inch off its trajectory. A little bit one way it would have pierced her spine, the other her liver.
Grigsby and Lillard were in their grandparent’s truck when the tornado hit. The swirling 200-mph winds picked up the truck and tossed it more than 300 feet across the parking lot. Grigsby was thrown from the vehicle, Lillard was pinned inside, but they both saw the same thing – people with wings, according to a story in the Joplin Globe. A hand touched Lillard’s shoulder as she lay in the wreckage of her grandparent’s vehicle. She thought it was Grigsby, but when she looked, it was something this church-going child didn’t expect – Butterfly People. One with brown hair, the other blond, she told The Globe. "It was kinda calming."
These cousins weren’t the only ones who were touched by people with wings. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recounted the story of a mother running for shelter while holding her young daughter. The wind knocked them to the ground, and the mother saw the twister lift a car and shoot it toward them. The mother cradled her daughter, trying to protect her from the impact, an impact that never occurred. When she looked up, her daughter said, “Didn't you see the butterfly people?" Then went on to tell her mother she could see these butterfly entities carrying people through the sky.
But the stories didn’t end. More people, always children and from all around the city, reported seeing the same thing, people with wings – and they were always described as butterflies. Butterfly People standing, and flying over them in the storm, protecting them from the raining debris. Wind tossed around a car of a man and his daughter, but the little girl wasn’t afraid because “beautiful” Butterfly People were sitting in the car with them, according to an article on Yahoo! News. Another car account has a four-year-old boy claiming two Butterfly People held his father’s car as the tornado tried to take it. Another four-year-old boy who was whisked six miles into a field told rescuers angels caught him and sat him down safely.
Reports of angel encounters are common, as are claims that butterflies symbolize visits from angels, but the Butterfly People of Joplin, described as such by so many children, is unique. A mural, “The Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight,” at the intersection of the town’s Main and 15th Streets, depicts the Butterfly People, along with other symbols of hope for the town still scarred by the tragedy that hit nearly six years ago.
Lillard told the Joplin area’s CBS station KOAM-7 she used to catch butterflies, but not anymore.