kcstarjoplin

Steven Weersing and Tara Fleming

Doctors returned Steven Weersing to his life after the tornado. But in every other way, Tara Fleming is the one who saved him.

Or maybe they saved each other.

She was 17 years old and at home, 22nd Street and Texas Avenue, when the twister blew away every timber of her house except the room where she clung for dear life with her mother, brother and her brother’s buddy.

“Roof came flying off,” said Tara, now 22. “We were holding on to the cabinet, the bathroom sink. We were being pulled up.”

Steven, at 16, was the kid who would end up in newspapers and on TV with his massive wound. On May 22, 2011, he and his friends had been tooling around the middle of Joplin in a friend’s car when they turned and collided head-on with the full force of the storm.

Ribs cracked, lung punctured, he passed in and out of painful consciousness before being tossed into a pickup and rushed to the hospital. The worst came when infectious black mold and flesh-eating fungus so consumed the skin, muscle and bones of his chest that he would spend 21 days in a medically induced coma.

Doctors warned that he could die. But he survived.

After too many surgeries to count, Steven emerged with a massive gouge of a scar stretching from his belly button to his nipples, ribs mostly gone, titanium rods supporting skin so thin that his internal organs can be seen pulsing beneath the surface.

He also, for several months after the storm, felt like a celebrity. Admirers surrounded him.

“At first it felt good,” said Steven, now 21, “because a lot of people came around and wanted to see me a lot.”

In time, they disappeared. Only 17, he was left depressed, frustrated by his constant surgeries. He had been a wild kid before, well muscled, a fearless BMX rider more into smoking weed with his friends than going to school.

His image of his body in the mirror haunted him.

“I never thought I’d have a normal life because of the way I looked,” he said.

Tara noticed. She liked him.

They weren’t dating at the time of the tornado, but they had known each other since middle school. Their friends had begun to hang out together. It bothered her to see how his brief time in the spotlight was attracting false friends.

“Honestly,” Tara said, “I don’t even think we would have gotten together unless the tornado happened. Our whole paths were —”

Steven finished her sentence. “Kind of connected.”

She used to be wild too, she concedes.

They began dating. “She gave me confidence,” he said.

Five years after the storm, all of life is different for two people with damaged lives who came together to heal each other.

They are happy. They have two daughters, Briella and Bailey. Briella will turn 3 on May 23, one day after the tornado anniversary. Bailey will turn 2 in June.

Steven, on disability, stays home with the girls. Tara works full time as a certified nursing assistant, soon to be a licensed practical nurse, with thoughts of going to nursing school.

One year ago, Tara used money from an inheritance for the down payment on a small house in the northern part of Joplin. She bought furniture and appliances. She is redoing the backyard for the kids.

“I’m focused on creating a very good life for us,” Tara said. “He deserves it more than anyone I know. He treats me like a queen. He’s got the sweetest soul, the sweetest heart. And he’s been through so much.”

Both have tattoos.

Steven bears a black twister on his left shoulder and the name Briella on the inside of his left bicep. Scripted on Tara’s right side is the phrase “What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger” with the date of the tornado and the word “Survivor.”

Of the tornado, Steven said, “It changed everything.”

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