'Miracle' tornado survivor denied workers' comp

Associated Press
FILE - In this Oct. 3, 2011 file photo, Mark Lindquist, of Joplin, Mo., is embraced by his sisters Vehrlene Crosswhite, left, and Linda Baldwin just before being released from the Missouri Rehabilitation Center in Mount Vernon, Mo. By all accounts, Lindquist is a hero, an underpaid social worker who nearly gave his life trying to save three developmentally disabled adults from the Joplin tornado. But heroism doesn't pay the bills, not when the tornado's 200 mph winds tossed Lindquist nearly a block, broke every rib, obliterated his shoulder, knocked out most of his teeth and put him in a coma for three months. (AP Photo/The Joplin Globe, T. Rob Brown, File)
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JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — By all accounts, Mark Lindquist is a hero, an underpaid social worker who nearly gave his life trying to save three developmentally disabled adults from the Joplin tornado. Both houses of the Missouri legislature honored Lindquist, the Senate resolution calling him "a true hero and inspiration to others."

But heroism doesn't pay the bills. The tornado's 200 mph winds tossed Lindquist nearly a block, broke every rib, obliterated his shoulder, knocked out most of his teeth and put him in a coma for about two months.

Lindquist, 51, ran up medical expenses that exceed $2.5 million, and the bills keep coming. He requires 11 daily prescriptions and will need more surgery.

But he has no medical insurance. Lindquist couldn't afford it on a job paying barely above minimum wage. He assumed workers' compensation would cover his bills, but his claim was denied "based on the fact that there was no greater risk than the general public at the time you were involved in the Joplin tornado," according to a letter to Lindquist from Accident Fund Insurance Company of America, his company's workers' comp provider.

That reasoning has angered Lindquist's family, employer, even lawmakers.

"I think they need to take another look at the circumstances and revisit the claim," state Rep. Bill Lant, R-Joplin, said. "What he did went beyond heroics."

Lindquist watched the skies darken on the evening of May 22 while on his way to the group home occupied by Mark Farmer, Rick Fox and Tripp Miller, three middle-aged men with Down syndrome. Soon after he arrived, a tornado siren began to blare.

Lindquist's employer, Community Support Services, had recently put workers through a tornado drill, so Lindquist and co-worker Ryan Tackett knew what to do. Because there was no basement or shelter and the residents moved too slowly to relocate, Lindquist and Tackett placed mattresses over the men for protection, then climbed atop the mattresses for added weight.

It seemed like little more than a precaution until Lindquist heard the unmistakable roar of the twister. "I told Ryan, 'If you've ever prayed before, now is the time to do it,'" he said.

The EF-5 tornado was among the nation's worst ever. It destroyed more than 7,000 homes, including the group home, and killed 162 people.

Among the dead were Farmer, Fox and Miller, a fact that still haunts Lindquist.

"I loved them almost as much as I love my own kid," he said.

Lindquist's survival defies logic. After the storm, rescuers found Lindquist buried in rubble, impaled by a piece of metal. Large chunks of flesh were torn off. Bones from his shoulder crumbled as they placed him on a door used as a makeshift stretcher. He was later delivered to Freeman Hospital.

Meanwhile, Lindquist's sister, Linda Lindquist Baldwin, his son, 12-year-old Creed, and other relatives contacted every hospital within 100 miles of Joplin searching for him. None of the unidentified matched Lindquist's description.

His injuries were so severe that his slender, athletic body had become swollen and unrecognizable. He was in a coma. Finally, after three days, he was identified by tiny brown flecks in his hazel eyes.

Doctors told Baldwin that if Lindquist survived, it likely would be in a vegetative state. Even in a best-case scenario, he likely would be blind in one eye, never regain use of his right arm, and never speak or think normally, she was told.

Things got worse. Debris that got into the open sores caused a fungal infection, one that killed five other Joplin tornado victims. Lindquist overcame the fungus but remained at Freeman until June 16. Still in a coma, he was flown to a hospital in Columbia for a little over a month before being sent to a rehab center in Mount Vernon where he awakened.

Lindquist's recovery amazed doctors. His right arm remains in a sling, but he has use of the hand. The eye that was temporarily blinded has full sight. He moves slowly and has short-term memory loss, but speaks well.

Baldwin said the insurance company's decision is unfathomable because if her brother hadn't been at work, he wouldn't have been hurt. He also could have jumped in his van and driven away from the group home as the tornado approached.

Lindquist said that thought never crossed his mind.

"I could have abandoned them to save myself, but I would never do that," he said.

Jahn Hurn, CEO of Community Support Services, said the agency has asked Accident Fund Insurance to reconsider Lindquist's case. Insurance company spokeswoman Stepheni Schlinker said she could not discuss an individual claim or whether the company would reconsider.

Lindquist also could seek relief through the Missouri Division of Workers Compensation but has not yet done so because he is weighing legal options and still dealing with health issues, Baldwin said.

Amy Susan, a spokeswoman for the division, said the state could help facilitate settlement talks with the insurance company, or Lindquist could ask an administrative law judge to hear the case. That judge would decide if the company should pay the claim.

Susan said that 132 workers' compensation claims were filed after the tornado. Only eight were denied by insurance companies.

Since word of Lindquist's plight spread, people around Joplin have pitched in, donating a few hundred dollars. Baldwin said her brother is touched by the kindness, even if it barely pays for the prescriptions, much less the medical costs.

Despite lingering pain, financial strain and uncertainty about whether he'll work again, Lindquist sees good things happening in his life.

Earlier this year, he was contacted by Carolyn Stephenson Mckinlay. They met 31 years ago in her Montana hometown, where he was helping to build a water tower. He was 21, she was 16. After a brief courtship they parted ways. Both married others, then divorced.

Mckinlay found Lindquist on Facebook earlier this year, and the two decided to meet in Joplin. The tornado hit first, but Mckinlay still came. He proposed in August, and they plan to wed.

All things considered, Lindquist said he's a lucky man.

"I'm a walking miracle," he said.

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