- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - Mason Lillard doesn’t spend much time these days thinking about the EF-5 tornado that nearly killed her and her cousin in the parking lot of a Home Depot store in Joplin five years ago.

But Mason, now 15, doesn’t mind talking about the angels she says she saw next to her and Lage Grigsby on May 22, 2011, after their grandparents’ pickup truck was thrown 100 yards across the parking lot.

Many young survivors of the tornado that wreaked havoc on the city and was eventually blamed for 161 deaths described “butterfly people” they said protected them during the tornado, the Joplin Globe (https://bit.ly/1TnNKYB ) reported Sunday.

Among them is Mason, who grew up attending church, and said there is no mistaking the angels she saw alongside her and Lage. She saw them just before the storm hit, and when it was over she felt a touch on her shoulder, she said.

“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.”

Impaled by an inch-wide metal rod that went through the roof of the cab, Mason was taken to Freeman Hospital West for surgery after firefighters cut the rod to remove her from the vehicle. She would have died if the rod had shifted an inch in either direction, her surgeon said.

Lage, now 19, was hurt so badly that when he arrived at the hospital, he was taken to the hospital’s morgue.

Emergency room nurse Tracy Dye was sent to the morgue after hearing the tornado had hit St. John’s Regional Medical Center. She touched Lage’s arm as she was walking through, and he “let out a scream,” she said. “I ran and got a doctor and we got him out of there.”

Dye stayed with the boy through surgery, which lasted six hours.

The surgeries performed on the night of the tornado were among nearly 25 that doctors considered crucial, “with life literally hanging in the balance,” said Paula Baker, Freeman president and CEO.

Mason is now a cheerleader at Jasper High School and a member of the softball team. Lage wears a brace on his right leg and has limited use of his right arm.

The two were at Freeman Hospital again on Thursday, when hospital officials unveiled a butterfly sculpture. The ceremony was among a number that have been taking place around Joplin to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the storm that destroyed one-third of the city.

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, https://www.joplinglobe.com

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