88 - The Butterfly People of Joplin, Missouri

Ep. 88

Joplin Tornado &

Butterfly People


Today's ride, while keeping with the theme of the possibly paranormal and cryptid, takes us on a more uplifting ride. While the story is rooted in tragedy, the discussion quickly turned to stories of help and hope. This is something that neither Moody nor myself knew about, and through discussing it with several people, doesn't seem to be a hugely popular topic in these circles. Despite this fact, we found it to be an intriguing topic so we decided to follow up on it. Today we are talking about the Butterfly people of Joplin Missouri. Before we get into what they are, we need to take a look at the incident that spawned the tales. So without further ado… Let's get into it!


Between May 21 and May 26, 2011 the Midwestern and southern United States experienced the largest tornado outbreak on record, with a total of 1,894 tornadoes causing 551 fatalities. Most of the tornadoes developed in a corridor from Lake Superior southwest to central Texas; isolated tornadoes occurred in other areas.


On May 21, a small system of thunderstorms developed in Brown County, Kansas while another system formed to the southeast of Emporia, Kansas. The Brown county system spawned a brief tornado over Topeka, Kansas, causing minor damage. This system also caused significant damage in Oskaloosa, Kansas, and other communities. Meanwhile, the Emporia system spawned an EF3 tornado that struck Reading, Kansas; one person was killed, several others were injured, and at least 20 houses were destroyed. These two systems developed several other tornadoes throughout the evening. A moderate risk of severe weather was issued for much of the Midwest, as well as further south to Oklahoma for May 22. The first tornadic supercell developed in the mid-afternoon hours over the western Twin Cities in Minnesota, and caused moderate damage in the Minneapolis area. Shortly thereafter, an intense tornado crept towards Harmony, Minnesota, prompting the National Weather Service to issue the first tornado emergency of the outbreak. Late that afternoon, a large, intense EF5 multiple-vortex tornado left catastrophic destruction in Joplin, Missouri. This is the tornado that we are looking at in this episode. After the Joplin tornado there would be many more throughout the next few days. In fact the cell would spawn a total of 241 tornadoes total. Out of those 241 only 2 reached EF5 status, the Joplin tornado and one dubbed El Reno. El Reno was actually the more violent of the two, but luckily it landed in a rural area and there were considerably less fatalities. To give you an idea of the strength of these guys, he's an example of some of the damage of the El Reno twister which reached a max velocity of 295 mph!: As it approached and crossed Interstate 40 west of El Reno, it reached its maximum intensity. Three people were killed as two vehicles were tossed more than 1,093 yards from the road and obliterated, the victims being found stripped of clothing 1⁄4 mile from the interstate and left "unrecognizable". Only pieces of the vehicle's frames were reportedly recovered. A nearby 20,000-pound oil tanker truck that was parked at an oil production site near the interstate was thrown approximately one mile into a wooded gully. Several homes were swept completely away along I-40, trees were completely debarked, and the ground was heavily scoured in some areas. At the nearby Cactus-117 oil rig site, a 1,900,000-pound oil derrick was blown over and rolled three times. That shit is intense! Imagine if that had hit a major city. And that was only a portion of the damage and impact. The El Reno tornado had a 63 mile long path through 4 counties in Oklahoma killing 9 and injuring 161. While that tornado was devastating, we're looking at the Joplin tornado, the one that saw incredible stories of butterfly people helping to save the lives of townspeople. The tornado itself could honestly be an entire episode because of its craziness.


The Joplin tornado was a powerful and catastrophic EF5-rated multiple-vortex tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, United States, on the evening of Sunday, May 22, 2011. The tornado initially touched down just east of the Missouri-Kansas state line near the end of 32nd Street at 5:34 pm CDT and tracked due east, downing a few trees at EF0 intensity. Eyewitnesses and storm chasers reported multiple vortices rotating around the parent circulation in that area. Civil defense sirens sounded in Joplin twenty minutes before the tornado struck in response to a tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) at 5:17 pm CDT for northwestern Newton and southwestern Jasper counties in Missouri, and southeastern portions of Cherokee County, Kansas, but many Joplin residents did not heed them. The tornado strengthened to EF1 intensity as it continued through rural areas towards Joplin, snapping trees and power poles and damaging outbuildings. Widening, the tornado then tracked into the more densely populated southwest corner of the city near the Twin Hills Country Club. It heavily damaged several homes at a subdivision in this area at EF1 to EF2 strength. The tornado continued to strengthen as it ripped through another subdivision just east of Iron Gates Road. Numerous homes were destroyed at EF2 to EF3 strength at that location, and multiple vehicles were tossed around, some of which were thrown on or rolled into homes. The now massive wedge tornado then crossed S. Schifferdecker Ave., producing its first area of EF4 damage as several small but well-built commercial buildings were flattened. Consistent EF4 to EF5 damage was noted east of S. Schifferdecker Ave. and continued through most of southern Joplin. Numerous homes, businesses, and medical buildings were flattened in this area, with concrete walls collapsed and crushed into the foundations. A large steel-reinforced step and floor structure leading to a completely destroyed medical building was "deflected upward several inches and cracked". Steel trusses from some of the buildings were "rolled up like paper", and deformation/twisting of the main support beams was noted. Multiple vehicles were thrown and mangled or wrapped around trees nearby. Several 300-pound concrete parking stops anchored with rebar were torn from a parking lot in this area and were thrown up to 60 yards away. Iowa State University wind engineer Partha Sarkar was able to calculate the force needed to remove the parking stops and found that winds exceeding 200 mph were needed to tear them from the parking lot. Damage became remarkably widespread and catastrophic at and around the nearby St. John's Regional Medical Center, which lost many windows, interior walls, ceilings, and part of its roof; its life flight helicopter was also blown away and destroyed. Five fatalities were caused by loss of backup power, and the nine-story building was so damaged that it was deemed structurally compromised, and was later torn down. According to the NWS office in Springfield, Missouri, such extreme structural damage to such a large and well-built structure was likely indicative of winds at or exceeding 200 mph. Vehicles in the hospital parking lot were thrown into the air and mangled beyond recognition, including a semi-truck that was tossed 125 yards and wrapped completely around a debarked tree. Wind-rowing of debris was noted in this area, and additional concrete parking stops were removed from the St. John's parking lot as well. Virtually every house near McClelland Boulevard and 26th Street was flattened; some were swept completely away, and trees sustained severe debarking.



As the tornado tracked eastward, it maintained EF5 strength as it crossed Main Street (SR 43) between 20th and 26th Streets. It heavily damaged every business along that stretch and several institutional buildings were virtually destroyed. It tracked just south of downtown, narrowly missing it. Entire neighborhoods were leveled in this area with some more homes swept away, and trees were stripped completely of their bark. At some residences, reinforced concrete porches were deformed, or in some cases completely torn away. Damage to driveways was noted at some residences as well. Numerous vehicles were tossed up to several blocks away from the residences where they originated, and a few homeowners never located their vehicles. A large church, Greenbriar Nursing Home, Franklin Technology Center, St. Mary's Catholic Church and School, and Joplin High School were all destroyed along this corridor. The Greenbriar Nursing Home was completely leveled, with 21 fatalities occurring there alone. As the tornado crossed Connecticut Ave further to the east, it destroyed several large apartment buildings, a Dillon's grocery store, and a bank. Only the concrete vault remained at the bank, and a wooden 2x4 was found speared completely through a concrete curb at one location as well. No one was in the high school at the time; the high school graduation ceremonies held about 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north at Missouri Southern State University had concluded shortly before the storm. Pieces of cardboard were found embedded sideways into stucco walls that remained standing at Joplin High School.

Steel beams and pieces of fencing were deeply embedded into the ground in fields near the high school as well, steel fence posts were bent to the ground in opposite directions, and a school bus was thrown into a nearby bus garage. The tornado then approached Range Line Road, the main commercial strip in the eastern part of Joplin, affecting additional neighborhoods along 20th Street.


The now heavily rain-wrapped tornado continued at EF5 intensity as it crossed Range Line Road. In that corridor between about 13th and 32nd Streets, the tornado continued producing catastrophic damage as it was at its widest at this point, being nearly 1 mile (1.6 km) wide. As the tornado hit the Pizza Hut at 1901 South Range Line Road, store manager Christopher Lucas herded four employees and 15 customers into a walk-in freezer. With difficulty closing the door, he wrapped a bungee cable holding the door shut around his arm until he was sucked out and killed by the tornado. The tornado completely destroyed Walmart Supercenter No. 59, a Home Depot, and numerous other businesses and restaurants in this area, many of which were flattened. Numerous metal roof trusses were torn from the Home Depot building and were found broken and mangled in nearby fields. Cars that originated at the Home Depot parking lot were found hundreds of yards away. Asphalt was scoured from parking lots at Walmart and a nearby pizza restaurant, and large tractor-trailers were thrown up to 200 yards away. An Academy Sports + Outdoors store along Range Line sustained major structural damage, and a chair was found impaled legs-first through an exterior stucco wall at that location. A nearby three-story apartment complex was also devastated, and two cell phone towers were found collapsed onto the remains of the apartments. Numerous cars were thrown and piled on top of each other, 100-pound manhole covers were removed from roads and thrown, ground scouring occurred, and a Pepsi distribution plant was completely leveled in this area as well. Additional calculations of the manhole covers in Joplin by Parka Sarkar revealed that winds had to have exceeded 200 mph for the manhole covers to be removed. Many fatalities occurred in this area, and damage was rated as EF5.




Extreme damage continued in the area of Duquesne Road in southeast Joplin. Many houses and industrial and commercial buildings were flattened in this area as well. The industrial park near the corner of 20th and Duquesne was especially hard hit with nearly every building flattened. Several large metal warehouse structures were swept cleanly from their foundations, and several heavy industrial vehicles were thrown up to 400 yards away in this area. One of the many warehouses affected was a Cummins warehouse, a concrete block and steel building that was destroyed. The last area of EF5 damage occurred in the industrial park, and a nearby Fastrip gas station and convenience store was completely destroyed. Many homes were destroyed further to the east at EF3 to EF4 strength in a nearby subdivision, and East Middle School sustained major damage.


The tornado then continued on an east to east-southeast trajectory towards Interstate 44 where it weakened; nonetheless, vehicles were blown off the highway and mangled near the U.S. Route 71 interchange. The damage at and around the interchange was rated EF2 to EF3. The weakening tornado continued to track into the rural areas of southeastern Jasper County and northeastern Newton County where damage was generally minor to moderate, with trees, mobile homes, outbuildings, and frame homes damaged mainly at EF0 to EF1 strength. The tornado lifted east of Diamond at 6:12 pm CDT (23:12 UTC) according to aerial surveys. The tornado's total track length was at least 22.1 miles (35.6 km) long. Overall, 6,954 homes were destroyed, 359 homes had major damage and 516 had minor damage, 158 people were killed, and 1,150 others were injured along the path. A separate EF2 tornado touched down near Wentworth from the same supercell about 25 miles (40 km) east-southeast of Joplin.


So that's the story of this incredible tornado. But something more came from this. In the aftermath of this devastating event, tales began to emerge of strange beings described as butterfly people, appearing to help and protect the citizens of Joplin. This is why we are talking about this event!


What were they? Was it mass hysteria? Was it a cooking mechanism for the many children affected? If they were real, where did they come from? Extraterrestrial? Interdimensional? Let's look at some stories and then explore some theories!


So we'll start with some of the stories from the people that were there. One woman, arriving home with her children, ran inside her home with great hurry. Together, they sheltered inside a small closet and the family started praying when, suddenly, the full force of the F5 tornado ripped their home to shreds. Inside the fury of wind and hail, the family thought it was the end. The winds were so fierce even the daughter’s glasses shattered as the roof was ripped off above them. Then, strangely, the son saw something in the sky. Amidst the pain and anguish, there was something above them, amongst the winds. A white woman with wings, hovering over them, as if she was protecting them from harm. Had madness set in? Was it a religious vision? The son described what he saw as a ‘butterfly woman’, who stayed and stayed, protecting the family from harm. Moreover, the rest of the family also saw the vision. As the tornado passed by, the family were left unharmed. In fact, the closet was the only thing left without damage. The entire rest of the house, everything, was destroyed, yet that humble closet, with no additional protection to the rest of the house, survived. All this served to reinforce the belief for the family that an angel had protected them on that day. Medical aid soon arrived and the search began for the injured and the trapped. Rumours began to circulate amongst the crowds. One nurse, looking rather confused, told the family she saw an angel and when pressed, she described the exact same vision the family had seen. Down to the last detail. The nurse said the ‘butterfly woman’ was larger than the average human, with wings. She wasn’t sure what to make of what she saw, but she didn’t fear it. She said she saw it whilst tending to a man who had been impaled on a wooden stake. She knew he was dying and then she saw it. Something standing nearby. As if it was comforting the man. If this was a religious vision of the dying, then why did the nurse see it?


And it wasn’t the only one. Rather than some strange being protecting the town, the nurse said that she saw many. Not a ‘butterfly woman’… butterfly people.


Over the following weeks, counsellors spoke to dozens and dozens of traumatised children across the town, none of whom knew each other, and every single one spoke of the Butterfly People, and how they ‘saved them’ on that day. And time and time again, the descriptions matched. Joplin was no longer just the scene of a tragedy. No longer just a war zone steeped in loss and billions of dollars worth of damage. It was now also home to something strange. Something unexplainable.


Lage Grigsby was believed to be near death when he arrived at Freeman Hospital West after being pulled from debris in the May 22, 2011, tornado. In fact he was actually taken to the hospital's fucking morgue.


Mason Lillard would have died, her surgeon said, if a metal rod driven through her body would have shifted an inch either direction. Despite critical injuries suffered when their grandparents' truck was thrown more than 300 feet across the Home Depot parking lot, the two cousins say they don't think that often about the EF5 twister.


"You kind of forget about it unless you look at the scars," said Mason.


On the night of the tornado, Mason was rushed to surgery, but Lage had been black tagged — meaning he was thought to be dying. That same night Freeman Hospital West ER nurse Tracy Dye arrived at the hospital after she heard the tornado had hit St. John's Regional Medical Center. She had considered not going to work because she was watching the storm develop and didn't want to leave her sons. When Dye arrived at the hospital, she was sent down to the morgue. Walking through, she touched Lage's arm and... get this shit..."he let out a scream. I ran and got a doctor and we got him out of there," she said. Dye stayed with him until surgery, which lasted six hours. For him, those actions were lifesaving, Lage reminded the nurse Wednesday.


"I owe you my life," he said.


Sharon Lillard calls Dye "our angel," adding, "I was at the hospital the other day and I dropped a little gift by for her." According to Mason's account of the storm, Dye was not the only angel on duty that night. She saw them just before the storm hit, Mason said, and after... she felt a touch on her shoulder.


"I thought it was Lage, but when I turned I saw two angels in robes, one with brown hair and one with blond hair," she said. "It was kinda calming. I knew God was with us and that he'd take us to be with him, or leave us to do something great."


Elsewhere, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recounted another story of a mother and daughter. When the storm hit, the mother, holding her little child, ran for shelter. The force of the winds knocked them to the ground. Terrifyingly, the mother looked back to see a car picked up by the tornado and flung right in their direction. She couldn’t escape, she didn’t have the time. So she curled up and cradled her daughter, hoping to protect her from the impact of the car that was literally right above them. But it didn’t hit. She had closed her eyes, but her daughter didn’t. When the seconds passed by turned into minutes, she opened her eyes and the car was nowhere to be seen. “What happened?” she asked her daughter. “Didn’t you see the butterfly people mommy?” Her daughter was sure the Butterfly People were carrying humans through the sky. “They were beautiful”, the little girl said smiling!


Crazy shit! That literally gave me goosebumps as I read it.


The stories were mounting up. A grandfather and two young boys trapped outside during the tornado. The grandfather lost his shoes as the tornado passed over them, when the two young boys looked up they saw the ‘Butterfly People’ watching over them. Over the weeks, more and more people came forward, from all over the town. All reporting the same thing. People with wings, always described as butterflies. And most of the time, the reports were coming from children. One little girl with her mother said she wasn’t afraid because the ‘butterfly people were with them’. Another four-year-old boy said two Butterfly People ‘held’ his father’s car to stop it being taken away. And yet another little boy, who was picked up by the winds and flung some six miles through the air, told rescuers that angels caught him and sat him down safely on the ground.


The local hospital was inundated with the injured and soon, every ward, every room, every nurse, every patient, were filled with stories of these “Butterfly People”... angels protecting them during the worst of the storm. And not just there, but in the lines waiting for donated food, all anyone was talking about were the Butterfly People. It was one of the worst tornado strikes in living memory. For the months that followed, people gathered all over town and told their stories. Stories of how they survived and stories of those they lost. And, above all, stories of the Butterfly People.


This sounds incredible… But this isn't the first instance of this sort of thing happening. Take a look at the 1978 Freiberg mine disaster. All the miners, every one of them, saw a man standing in front of the mine at Freiberg, Germany. When the workers approached the man, they discovered huge wings covering his body. They stood in shock for a moment when, suddenly, the ‘angel’ let out a series of shrieks described as similar to a train’s emergency brakes. The miner’s fled and around one hour later, the mine exploded. A huge plume of smoke covered Freiberg. For many of the miners, what they saw was an angel, warning them of the danger. If they hadn’t fled, they’d all be dead after all…


The same thing happened in 1986 in Chernobyl. Dozens and dozens of people saw winged creatures, which many described as ‘angels’, hovering above the land moments before the disaster, leading many to believe these ‘angels’ were signs that a horrific event was coming. Even as recently as 2001, many people claim to have seen winged creatures around the Twin Towers shortly before the disaster.


So what are they?


Well the obvious first choice is… Angels. Joplin is at the centre of America’s religious heartland. Deep in the religious heartland, people of great faith claim to see an angel before they think they’re about to die. It does happen. Quite a lot, in fact. Near-death experiences often sound strange to those of us who haven’t had them. The one hole in this theory is that they didn’t say ‘angels’. Only a few did, but most people who saw the Butterfly People of Joplin described what they saw as the name implies, ‘butterfly people’ and not angels. Of course, many were children. Maybe the simple answer is that children have a better idea of what a butterfly is than an angel.


This leads into another explanation. NDEs, or near death experiences. Now since we know you guys are avid listeners, we know that you've already listened to our episode on NDE. Without getting deep into that subject again, basically some are saying that these people were simply experiencing NDE. Their brains were helping them cope with the fact they were about to die. But that doesn't explain why they all saw the same thing. Or why some that were literally about to die ended up safe.


Another interesting theory is that they were interdimensional beings. The theory basically states that because of the storm being so massive, the electricity in the atmosphere was ramped up considerably. This added to all of the energy of the storm somehow managing to rip open a portal or gateway that allowed these beings to pass through. The thought is that the beings, when confronted with the scene before them, came through the portal to help as many people as they could before the portal closed again. So there's that… Interdimensional beings.


With all of the stories it's hard to doubt that something strange truly happened. The people of Joplin stand by what they claim to have seen and with great conviction. During the summer, a mural was painted in downtown Joplin. Public meetings were held to gather ideas for the mural, how the city's history and the tornado should be depicted. While they resisted the inclusion of the butterfly people at first, they eventually decided on including butterflies in the mural. Big, colorful butterflies flutter across the scene, while two small angels can be seen, too. The murals artist said the butterflies represented metamorphosis, how the city is being reborn. The mural was titled "The Butterfly Effect" to represent how the mural could inspire others to do good in this world. It has nothing to do with butterfly people, he said. But everyone wasn't convinced. "Even on that mural," one resident said, "there's butterflies because they've heard of the butterfly people."


Butterflies have long held symbolic value. The ancient Greek word "psyche" refers to both butterflies and the human soul. Butterflies are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the book "On Death and Dying," said her study of death was influenced by a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp in Poland where she saw images of hundreds of butterflies carved into walls by prisoners.


So, what did they see? Could it have been mass hysteria? Interdimensional beings that crossed over during one of the most powerful natural events our world can create? Why was it mainly children that saw them? Are children just more susceptible to being able to see spirits? We’ve all seen “The Sixth Sense”, right? The Bruce Willis movie where the little boy is tormented by the ghosts he and ONLY he sees. Well, not to go COMPLETELY off the rails, here are some stories about creepy kids seeing some creepy shit.


The pajama-clad boy

“When we were looking at condos to purchase our first place, Claire was just shy of her third birthday. We brought her with us to all of our showings because we wanted to see how comfortable she was as it would be her home too. When we walked through the door of the place we ultimately bought, the second floor of a 1911 Chicago brick three-flat, we all knew immediately that it was the right place. That evening, I asked Claire if she thought that place would be a good home for her, and her response was, ‘Yes! And the little boy that lives there is really nice too.’

This took me aback, but I tried to remain calm. I asked her what she meant, and she said there was a little boy in his pajamas that she saw in the dining room. She said he had waved at her, he was about her age, and he was only in the dining room. She knew his name (which I don’t remember now) and that he was afraid of water. After she went to bed that night, I looked up ways to clear the energy of a home, how to communicate with a ghost so they don’t bother your family, and anything else I could find to make sure at least I could be comfortable living in this otherwise perfect condo. Claire never talked about him again, not even the next day when I asked her to tell my husband.” —Ashlie M., mom of two

The cemetery sighting

Trigger Warning: This next anecdote touches on the subject of the loss of a child and could be potentially triggering for some. Please skip ahead if you feel it might not be for you.

“My son was around 2 at the time. We were driving past the cemetery when he said, ‘Look, mama! Dead people.’ Yes, darling, I responded. ‘Kids!’ he continued, matter-of-factly. And sure enough, we were passing by the children’s section. Curious, I asked if the kids were happy or sad. ‘Happy, mama!’ he said. ‘They are running around that daddy.’ All I saw was a man standing alone with his head dropped. It warmed my heart, honestly.” —Erin T., mom of two

The lingering grandmother

“We bought our current house from a man who was married for 40+ years. His wife passed away a couple of years before we bought the house. One evening, while tucking my 2.5-year-old into bed, he said, ‘Mama, night-night to the grandma,’ while pointing to the hallway between his room and mine—what was her room back then.” —Priscilla A., mom of one

The ghost friend

“When we moved into our house, Leo (2.5) was seeing a ghost. He would say ‘ghost’ and point to the dining room table. One day, I mentioned ‘Mr. Hutchinson’ to someone while giving a history of the house, and Leo said, ‘Mr. Hutchinson, my ghost friend?’ We confirmed with a house cleanser that someone attached to the home, like a grandfather figure was here, and attracted to Leo’s light and innocence. We have since had our house cleansed twice!” —Amy F., mom of two

The midnight playmate

“My then 4-year-old would tell me about a little girl who wanted to play with her. She apparently wanted to play all hours of the day and night. When I was finally able to sort out what was up with my daughter, in the middle of the night, I left this little ghost some toys in an upstairs closet so she could play by herself. She had a stuffed lamb and a stuffed duck, and I used to find them moved most mornings. The 4-year-old shared a room with her sibling, so I know it wasn’t her moving the toys.” —Tracy B., mom of three

The door-slammer

“Ender, my 4-year-old, will tell us stories about the little girl who shuts doors and turns off the lights. He can’t tell us what she looks like or where she goes. I don’t talk about ghosts or anything that would give Ender this idea. The last time the little girl was here, I heard the door slam. I ran in and asked him if he had closed it. He told me ‘No, the little girl did because she didn’t want to play.’” —Dee Dee A., mom of two

The visit from grandpa