Dayman Bryant, an Empire District Electric Co. lineman and meter service technician, describes himself as “just an ol' country boy who wants to help people.”
That he did in a memorable way last May when an EF5 multi-vortex tornado ripped through Bryant's and Empire's hometown of Joplin, Missouri, U.S., killing or wounding more than 160 people and wreaking an estimated US$2.8 billion in damages. Bryant was not on duty that day, but he ended up walking about 30 blocks from the center of the storm to his dispatch dock in order to help Joplin get back on its feet.
When the tornado hit, Bryant was at Joplin's St. John's Mercy Hospital, where he had just taken his 86-year-old mother after she had suffered a stroke earlier in the day. Bryant says he has always considered himself a “caretaker,” noting that shortly after his marriage, he and his wife both provided care for their elderly parents. Thus, checking in with his mother on that Sunday was nothing out of the ordinary.
Nor was it out of the ordinary that once the tornado tore through the hospital — a direct hit that would result in the relocation of all patients — that Bryant would be among those organizing the evacuation.
“There was blood and water everywhere, blown-out windows and broken water mains,” Bryant recalls of the storm's aftermath. “It was clear no one was going to be able to stay there, so we started wheeling out beds into the parking lot and finding vehicles to transport to other hospitals. Once we got people outside, I tried to find vehicles for transporting them.”
Among the vehicles that were not available was Bryant's truck; he found it flipped and with the windows blown out on the hospital's helipad. Nonetheless, he and his wife (who had driven to the hospital right before the storm in a separate vehicle — also totaled by the storm) managed to ferry Bryant's mother to another hospital. From there, Bryant's dual country-boy and caretaker instincts took over again.
“All the cell towers were down, so we had no way to call work,” he says. “But I knew we had a ton of repair work, so I checked with my wife. She said, ‘You need to go.’”
With no truck, Bryant set out to walk the roughly 30 blocks from the hospital to his dispatch dock. The 58-year-old lineman, in his 32nd year with Empire District Electric, estimates he's been on dozens of storm-restoration calls during his career, but nothing that even came close to the devastation he saw that day.
“I graduated right here from Parkwood High School, the one that got destroyed in this tornado,” Bryant notes. An avid hunter, outdoorsman and Harley rider, Bryant says he was “drawn to line work because I loved being outdoors, knew I could never do a desk job or want to be in a factory all day.”
After high school, Bryant worked any number of construction and outdoor jobs for a few years, and one day was watching some electric linemen do their work and thought that might be an ideal job for him. He started at the power plant and eventually got his opportunity to go out with line crews and learn his craft as a lineman.
“When I started, it was all just on-the-job training,” he says. “I had taken machinists courses in school, but you just learned this [electrical line work] as you went.”
Asked about highlights of his career, Bryant returns to storm restoration. “It's just kind of what you remember most,” he says, speaking of tornadoes, thunderstorms and ice storms in Tulsa, Kansas City, St. Louis and even Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He calls damage from the Joplin tornado, “the worst I have ever seen,” adding that his trek from the hospital to work on that Sunday felt like “one of those movies where you see the world coming to an end.”
Bryant says, the town is “starting to get back to normal.” Though many schools, churches and commercial buildings have reopened, several facilities are still operating in temporary locations. Bryant's life is also starting to get back to normal, as he spends much of his time today turning power on to new or rebuilt homes. He and his wife have replaced both of their vehicles, and, fortunately for them, their house — a mere quarter mile from the hospital — escaped significant damage. Bryant's mother passed away in August, and, true to form, Bryant and his wife were her caretakers to the end.
Today, he looks back on that fateful May day — as well as the rest of his long career with Empire — with satisfaction over the work that has been done but also with more than a modicum of modesty.
“We take care of our family first, so I made sure my mother was okay, but after that, I didn't question it,” Bryant recalls of his long walk to work that Sunday. “We all did it that day; everybody just started showing up at work.”
That long walk to work, as well as long days of storm restoration in Joplin and through the years in other towns and cities is also nothing out of the ordinary, Bryant concludes.
“Shoot, I'm just an ol' country boy who wants to help people,” he drawls, “there ain't nothing special about me.”