Hospital exec: I was sucked outside by tornado

A destroyed helicopter lies on its side in the parking lot of the Joplin Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., Sunday, May 22, 2011.
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

JOPLIN, Mo. - Rod Pace, Med Flight manager at St. John's Regional Medical Center, watched the tornado form to the southwest like so many before.

He was on the second floor of St. John's on Sunday evening to finish payroll before an expected frantic Monday. He'd wrapped up his work, but decided to stay an extra 15 to 20 minutes to let the weather pass.

Pace saw the swirling rain start to form about a mile off. The flags outside suddenly stopped blowing to the northeast, only to be pulled back to the west.

That was about the time the glass doors he was holding onto — the ones with the 100-pound magnet to keep them locked — were pulled open with Pace still holding on to the handles. He was sucked outside briefly and then pushed back in like a rag doll, all the while holding on to the handles.

Pictures: Joplin, Mo., devastated by tornado
Joplin residents reeling after huge twister
Tornado slams Joplin, Mo.; Dozens feared dead

He headed to the hospital's interior for cover. Then he heard the roar. Pace and a co-worker pushed on a door to make sure it stayed shut, but it kept swaying back and forth.

"I've heard people talk about being in tornadoes and saying it felt like the building was breathing," Pace said. "It was just like that."

Outside, an explosion. Glass shards pelted the exterior. Pace heard screams.

He helped pull debris off two people outside the emergency room.

"There was a lot of strength in the leadership in the hospital and ER here," Pace said. "Things were going as they were supposed to go."

Video: Joplin, Mo., survivor describes tornado
Video: Obama calls for aid in Missouri, Midwest
Video: Tornado makes direct hit on Joplin hospital

St. John's spokeswoman Miranda Lewis described the devastation to "The Early Show" on Monday.

"We had heard that the hospital was hit, but really I wasn't prepared for what I found here," Lewis told "The Early Show." "It's just ... devastation. There are cars that are upside down, wrapped around trees. Most of the hospital is devastated ... It was difficult to see."

Lewis was at home when the tornado sirens began going off. Early Monday, she had no details on any deaths or injuries suffered at the hospital in the tornado strike, although she had seen the damaged building.

"It's like what you see someplace else, honestly," Lewis said. "That's a terrible way to say it, but you don't recognize what's across the street.

"I had seen it on television, but until you're standing right here and see the devastation, you can't believe it."