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Magazine Writer Tracks Down 24 Tornado Survivors From Joplin Convenience Store Cooler

Luke Dittrich spent weeks in Joplin amidst chaos and destruction to find and interview survivors
Luke Dittrich
Luke Dittrich, contributing editor for Esquire magazine, stands on the site of the convenience store in front of survivors who took shelter in the store

On May 23, the day after the tornado hit Joplin, writer Luke Dittrich was in St. Louis working on a story about Chuck Berry. But upon seeing the scope of the devastation, his plans took a detour.  KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has this interview.

Within days of the tornado, Dittrich—who is a contributing editor for Esquire magazine—was in Joplin trying to track down the people who had ridden out the storm in a convenience store cooler.  One person had recorded that experience on his phone, and that video had gone viral on YouTube. We have some of that audio to play for you now, and we need to advise you that some listeners might find it disturbing.

[Sound:  YouTube video of voices in cooler yelling, praying]

Everyone in that cooler survived. Dittrich found and interviewed 24 people whose lives were intertwined in those cramped quarters, and his story recently hit the newsstands.  He joined me by phone to talk about his reporting experience.

“I can honestly say that this is the first story that my mom ever turned me on to,” Dittrich said.

His mother had heard an interview on NPR with the person who had recorded the video, and she told Dittrich he should check it out—which he did.

“I heard that and I immediately thought that I wanted to know who these people were,” he said.

He put his story in St. Louis on hold.  Before he headed to Joplin, he contacted the person who shot the video—through his YouTube account.  That led to two other people who had also been inside the cooler.  But that was all Dittrich had.

"The first several days in Joplin, I stayed in a church shelter. And I had a lot of time,   because I hadn’t tracked down many people yet, so I did some volunteer work for them, at the Wildwood Baptist Church,” he recalls.

He was working in conditions that have been compared to a war zone:  communications were down. Many people were no longer living in the same places.  He began to hang out at the site of the FastTrip on the corner of 20th and Duquesne.

Survivors, and their families, kept coming back to the cooler, he said.

“So I ran into, I think, the sister of one person who had been in the cooler, and then I ran into the dad of two other people who had been in the cooler.  And then I started actually going through the wreckage to see if I could find leads,” Dittrich said.

His detective work paid off. In the course of his interviews, he had caught wind of a photographer who had been in the cooler during the tornado—she had weilded a camera with a long lens, other survivors told him.

“There was one vehicle…upside down near the gas tanks. And I was looking inside that vehicle, and I saw that there was a Nikon lens filter in there, as well as a couple of SD cards,” he said.

He also found some paperwork in the car that led him to the ex-wife of the photographer’s boyfriend…one of the many wild goose chases he encountered while reporting this story.

The photographer, as it turns out, had actually taken pictures inside the cooler, which ultimately appeared alongside Dittrich’s article in Esquire.

Dittrich says working on this story was one of the most gratifying reporting experiences in his life, partly because of how the people in the cooler behaved in what they thought were their last moments.

“I thought that they all behaved heroically. They all behaved in this way that everyone hopes we hope we would behave when confronted with something like that. And so I felt just honored to be able to tell their story,” Dittrich said.

Beyond that, he says when he’s working on stories, he often has this nagging feeling that he’s exploiting people he’s writing about—that he’s taking from them without giving anything back. 

In this case, however, once he had tracked everybody down, he arranged a reunion for those two-dozen survivors, which he said was "extremely gratifying."

You can click here to read Dittrich’s story in Esquire magazine.