As the Jasper County coroner, Rob Chappel was accustomed to handling two or three deaths a week.
Then came May 22, 2011. That night, he stared down at 90 bodies spread across a parking lot at Missouri Southern State University and knew more would come.
They were people of all ages, from children to nursing home residents, who had been sucked out of their homes and cars, buried under heavy debris, killed inside a department store.
Chappel has been able to put everything he experienced in a place that doesn’t haunt him at night or keep him from moving on after a challenge, and controversy, greater than he could have imagined.
“I got that peace,” he said. “That I took care of people’s loved ones the very best I could. I really was taking care of them like they were my own family.”
Chappel didn’t say much in the months after the disaster. But as the first anniversary approached, he spoke to The Star for a three-part series on the decisions he had to make after a body was misidentified and released to the wrong family. He had to ensure a proper and thorough process for identifying victims.
His decisions upset families who wanted to bury their loved ones quickly and thought the process was taking too long.
“I tried to do right by Jasper County,” Chappel said. “I know that was hard for some people.”
He had been coroner a little more than two years when the tornado hit. The next year, he ran again. Some thought it was the wrong decision.
“They said, ‘Do you really want to go through that again?’” Chappel recalled.
He won re-election and is running again this fall.
The tornado creeps back every time lawyers request his records. A few families have sued, or looked into suing, businesses where their loved ones died or were injured.
In some cases, Chappel has had to revisit pictures of children who died.
“You look at those pictures and you think, ‘They just didn’t have a chance; their lives were just getting started,’” he said.
He stops himself from getting lost in it. And he makes sure that he keeps other images just as close.
One he revisits often: After the storm, he drove through the city. Along with the heartache, he felt hope as he saw strangers handing out water and sandwiches to people who had lost everything.
When he considers the people of Joplin now, neighbors and strangers, it is with a new and comforting sense.
“You just know that if a catastrophic event happens … you’ll be able to rely on them,” he said. “We know that now.”Return to the main page