More than 160 people died as a direct result of the Joplin, Missouri tornado, which occurred a year ago this week and demonstrated the degree to which we remain playthings for nature at its most violent.
Tornado survivors emerged after heavy winds to find the apocalypse had come to visit. Houses were leveled. Buildings smashed. Cars had been flung like toys to lean against the few trees that had not been splintered, or to lie on top of debris piles.
Thousands were left homeless, and those who lived were plagued by questions: Like how?
As in, how did anyone at all survive such devastation?
It was in the wake of this question that the stories emerged—about The Butterfly People.
The tale took different forms—a mother and her daughter, a grandmother and her granddaughter. But the basic arc is the same: The adult worked hard to keep the child safe, and afterward the child reported that some colorful, winged being—a “butterfly person”—had really done the saving.
This article on the Butterfly People, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is in many respects a winning and definitive account—filled with a town’s sense of mourning, and the kindling of hope in a field of despair.
The author, Todd C. Frankel, charts a skeptical path through the tale: Perhaps a single child told a fanciful account, and the story took flight. The details changed as new people heard and reshaped the story in a mystical version of whisper down the lane. Or perhaps someone simply made the whole thing up, and it become a kind of urban legend, growing in the retelling. The people of Joplin, having seen their hometown reduced to sticks, seized on the story for the message it suggested—that they had not been subjected to a tragedy, but a miracle; that they had not seen their town destroyed; but an unlikely number of people saved.
Frankel invests his narrative with reason for doubt.
“Shelley Wilson heard the story of the mother and daughter. She works as a high school counselor. After the tornado, she volunteered for a Red Cross disaster mental health team. She drove through neighborhoods distributing supplies, assessing how people were holding up. She doesn’t remember who told her the butterfly people stories. She heard them several times. It was never firsthand — the stories never seemed to come from someone who experienced them.”
In a long story, only the following passage seems to allow for the possibility that something unexpected and strange did happen in the midst of the Joplin Tornado.
“The stories about butterfly people reached school therapists,” writes Frankel. “Nearly half of all students have had some contact with the Joplin Child Trauma Treatment Center, set up in the city’s schools after the tornado. Dawnielle Robinson, the clinical director, said two therapists heard stories directly from children who said they saw butterfly people.
“Some kiddos said that they had seen some visions of butterflies or butterfly people that helped to calm them or keep them safe,” Robinson said.
Other students reported seeing white lights. The stories came from students with different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. “It was across the board,” she said.
Frankel never references his own experience reporting the story, but I had the sense that he was on a quest to find a primary source—someone who would go on the record and say, “Yes, I saw a light,” or “I saw an angel.” So I called him and asked.
“I very much wanted to find where the story began,” Frankel told me. “It was like a hunt for patient zero.”
He says he pressed the school therapist’s office—hard—but they refused to even approach the family of one of the kid’s for him. “They said they had told me too much already,” he says, “in discussing the content of what some of the kids had said. And they just refused to go any further.”
Frankel says there was also another incident, which occurred while he was reporting, that didn’t make it into the story. A family that he spent a fair amount of time with, the McConnell-Pinjuvs, told him they knew of a little girl who reported seeing The Butterfly People.
“I was thrilled,” he said. “I had done a lot of reporting and I thought, ‘Finally, this is it.’”
The family drove him over to the little girl’s house. But when he got there, the girl’s parents swore she never told any such story.
Frankel says he “doesn’t believe in butterfly people” but he did want to understand the source of the tale. “It seemed like the story did a neat job of explaining something that seemed unexplainable, and maybe that’s why people embraced it.”
According to Frankel, while 160 people died, the number of dead seemed shockingly low given the devastation done to property. “It could easily have been 3,000,” he says.
If he could trace the story to even this one little girl, it would be like touching the beginnings of what the people of Joplin used to begin the effort of rebuilding: Hope.
His disappointment was deep.
“When we got outside,” he says, “the woman who told me about them apologized. She said, ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know why they did that.’”
Frankel left with his mind on two tracks: One, on how a story can develop a life of its own, can gain power and change shape over time; and two, “I realized how reticent someone might be to say, ‘Hey, I’m the one,’ or in this case, ‘Yes, my daughter had this experience and saw something strange.’”
Like Frankel, I’d love to know the source of the story, and if any primary source—a direct experiencer—exists at all. I doubt I can top Frankel’s boots on the ground effort. But I will make a few calls.