Seven days in May changed Sara Barnett's life forever.

Seven days in May changed Sara Barnett's life forever.

On May 17, the Joplin, Mo., woman had surgery to remove what appeared to be a fibroid lump from her left breast.

Five days later, a massive tornado tore through Joplin, destroying the Barnetts' home and belongings.

Then on May 24, Barnett and her family were bound for Alabama when she got a call from her doctor in Joplin. The doctor told her she had liposarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Barnett, 25, said that week was the hardest of her life.

"It was hell," she said.
    
'Like a thousand freight trains'

Barnett's mother, former Dodge City resident Becci Godsey, was in Joplin that week to help her daughter recover from the surgery.

Barnett and Godsey had planned an "extreme couponing" shopping trip for May 22. Armed with coupons, the women set off for Joplin's Dollar Tree store.

While they were in Dollar Tree, Barnett received a text message from her husband, Mike. He told her that a storm was approaching Joplin, and the family was taking shelter in their bathroom.

Godsey heard a tornado siren and asked the store manager if they should take shelter. But the manager told her not to worry, so Godsey and Barnett finished shopping and left the store.

The women drove back to the Barnetts' apartment on 24th Street, into the tornado's path.

"We were driving at least 50 miles an hour in a residential area," Godsey said. "There was no traffic anywhere but us. And the hail started and it got pitch black, and the wind was blowing crazy hard."

The women arrived at the apartment and rushed toward the front door, but the wind was so fierce that Mike had to help them open it.

As they closed the door, Godsey looked over her shoulder and saw four white vortexes slam into each other. The collision created a massive wedge tornado about 200 feet from the apartment.

"They say it sounds like a freight train," Godsey said. "Well, yes, it does. It sounds like about a thousand freight trains, and you happen to be underneath them."

Barnett climbed into the bathtub with her mother and her 2 1/2-year-old son, Aiden, and they huddled under the mattress from Aiden's crib. Mike climbed on top of the mattress, and the family started saying the Lord's Prayer.

After finishing one round of the prayer, the family asked God to help them endure the disaster.

Just before the eye of the storm arrived, the winds were so strong that they nearly sucked Mike out of the apartment. Then the walls and ceiling collapsed around him, showering dust and debris on the family.

But the fallen roof saved the family from blowing away.

The eye of the tornado moved on, and the storm started pounding the apartment again. Clutching each other, the family began another round of the Lord's Prayer.

"We were gripping, desperate, on skin, T-shirts," Godsey said. "We had four arms wrapped around the baby. Before Mike finally came back down, he was actually crying and saying good-bye. Because he knew he was only hanging on by one hand."

News reports indicated the tornado lasted only 20 seconds. But Barnett said it felt like 10 minutes.

"I just kept praying, 'I love God. I love my family. Don't take my family away from me,'" she said. "I just kept repeating it and repeating it. I really thought we were going to die."

Aftermath

When the storm finally passed, a neighbor helped pull the debris off the Barnetts so they could stand up and climb out of the bathtub. The family had minor scrapes and bruises but no major injuries.

Then the family ventured out of the bathroom, and they were stunned by the wreckage surrounding them.

The wall between the master bedroom and the bathroom was still standing, and two outer walls were intact. A pot of red beans and rice was sitting on the stove, but the rest of the kitchen — including the refrigerator and sink — was gone.

Barnett said she feared that another tornado would strike the apartment.

"I remember because the weather was still severe," she said. "I just kept remembering asking everyone, 'Is there another one coming? Is there another one coming?'"

The Barnetts scrambled to find shoes for everyone, then went outside to see the damage from the storm.

The tornado had destroyed their neighbor's apartment and tossed Mike's pickup truck onto a retaining wall. Sara's Ford Focus was sitting in her best friend's living room, four duplexes away from the Barnetts' apartment.

Downed power lines lay in the streets, and St. John's Regional Medical Center — only one block away from the Barnetts' apartment — was on fire.

The town's gas mains were exposed by the storm, so the Barnetts left the area. They found Mike's mother and sister, who had taken shelter in the home of another sister's boyfriend.

Before leaving town, Mike helped rescuers pull victims from the rubble. Then the family took a cab to Carthage, Mo. Sara's sister, Johnna Ali, and her husband, Riaz, had found a hotel room for the Barnetts and arranged bus tickets from Missouri to Alabama.

Two days later, the Barnetts caught the bus to Mobile, Ala.

Contact Eric Swanson at (620) 408-9917 or at eric.swanson@dodgeglobe.com.