October 20, 2011 12:00AM
"If you have a cell phone, call your parents. It's coming straight for us!"
Those chilling words from his boss still rattle around in Mitch Albright's head. A 22-year-old Pittsburg State University construction management major, Albright was a new employee at Academy Sports in Joplin when the tornado ripped through the city on May 22.
As the skies grew dark and angry, Albright sought shelter in the back of the store with co-workers and shoppers.
"I thought it was over for me," Albright said.
Albright survived the tornado and today he is rebuilding his own life. He says being one of more than 150 PSU students helping build seven houses in seven days for "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is part of that healing process. Albright joined about 50 other students who worked overnight Wednesday and Thursday morning to take part in the Tyvek wrap of the homes.
"It's an amazing feeling knowing I can finally give back," he said. "Like all of the construction management students, it's incredible to be here. But personally, it's just an honor for me to do this."
Like many of the tornado survivors, Albright sometimes struggles to retell his story.
"Of course my cell phone was dead," Albright said. "Our boss told us the storm had touched down a few miles from us and that we were in its path."
About 50 people were scattered at the back of the store in the break room and back hallway. A few had taken shelter in the restrooms, including a mother and her young child. Albright was in the hallway and as he crouched down to cover his head, the freight-train sounds of the deadly tornado filled his ears.
As the rain and hail pelted down and the air pressure fluctuated, the building began shaking. Pipes burst and objects started flying. Albright caught a large ceiling tile and used it for cover. A big metal door on the back of the building blew off its hinges. In the midst of the tornado's howl, Albright could hear the screams of the people next to him. The storm chewed up the roof and the rain poured in.
"You're listening to the panicking and screaming and you're thinking it's the end," Albright said. "Nothing in the world can prepare you for that."
In a few moments that felt like hours, the storm died down. Albright climbed from the rubble to an unbelievable landscape. Eventually, he ended up in an emergency triage area in Memorial Hall where he borrowed a phone to call his parents in Galena. While he waited for them to arrive, he tried to help the wounded as they arrived by directing them toward medical help.
"That was shocking to me," said Albright, who walked out of Academy with no serious injuries. Eyes tearing, he said he felt helpless as he witnessed the severely injured arrive in the beds of pickup trucks. "That's what got to me the most. It was the hardest thing, knowing I couldn't do anything to help them."
Ironically, the tornado helped Albright choose his current career path. A cousin had been talking to him about his success working in the field of construction, which led Albright to think about pursuing a degree in construction management. After surviving the May 22 tornado, his mind was settled. Albright transferred to PSU this fall.