In the hours immediately after the May 22, 2011 Joplin tornado, employees and officials at Mercy Joplin Hospital, then known as St. John’s, were scrambling to set up shop in Joplin’s Memorial Hall.

In the hours immediately after the May 22, 2011 Joplin tornado, employees and officials at Mercy Joplin Hospital, then known as St. John’s, were scrambling to set up shop in Joplin’s Memorial Hall.

Their own nine-story hospital, an icon in the Joplin skyline since the 1960s, had been devastated by 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds, and those nurses, doctors and other staff couldn’t be sure they would have a job in the weeks to come, even as they treated the thousands of people injured in the tornado.

Since then, that staff has moved to three hospitals, each successively better than the previous one.

They’ve also been watching as the skeleton of their new permanent hospital has grown on 50th Street south of Interstate 44.

On Thursday, construction workers, hospital administrators and staff and community members from Carthage and Joplin as well as the surrounding communities came together to mark the last piece of structural steel for that skeleton.

“Carthage, Joplin, it’s one big regional community now,” said Mercy Health System CEO Lynn Britton prior to Thursday’s ceremony. “(This ceremony) is important for us, but it’s important for Joplin and the community as well. We had the groundbreaking ceremony which is a wonderful beginning, but this topping out says we’ve really made some progress and shows the seriousness of the rebuilding effort not only for the hospital, but I think it’s a symbol for the whole community.”

The white steel beam, about 12 feet long, sat on sawhorses in the tent where the ceremony was held for several minutes with markers available for anyone who wanted to put a personal not on the hard steel before it disappeared into the sky, then under the rest of the structure.

The beam was destined to connect two vertical pieces of the skeleton on the northeast corner of the structure.

Three men, harnessed safely to the structure, stood on the skeleton, hundreds of feet from the ceremony, and nine stories in the air, waiting in the frigid wind as dignitaries spoke about the storm that made all this necessary and the plans for this 875,000-square-foot, $750 million hospital.

On the ground in the tent stood hundreds of people who came to mark the milestone.

Gary Pulsipher, president of Mercy Joplin, talked about the Sisters who founded the hospital in the 1800s.

“Catherine McAuley, who was the foundress of Mercy throughout the world, she said the proof of love is deed,” Pulsipher said. “We stand here today in the midst of many, many days of deed testifying to the truth of that thought. The Sisters of Mercy have always been doers. They’re commitment has been the foundation of Mercy’s mission. When the need for a hospital was originally identified in Joplin, Sister Francis Sullivan and the Sisters wasted no time establishing a temporary hospital in a borrowed building in 1896 and then, walked the mines to raise funds needed to construct Joplin’s first permanent hospital.”

John Farnen, executive director of strategic projects for Mercy, is the man in direct charge of the construction site. He rattled off the statistics that go with building such a large building.

One number, 17,000, had a direct bearing on Carthage.

“There will be over 17,000 light fixtures in this facility, all of those light fixtures will be provided locally by H.E. Williams in Carthage,” Farnen said. “They will be providing all of the light fixtures for this facility.”

Then workers lifted the white steel beam and placed it on a small front-end loader, which carried it from the tent to the base of a huge crane near the steel skeleton, which Farnen said includes 6,000 similar steel pieces.

As the crowd watched, the beam was hoisted in the sky, carrying on it a small sapling from a tree and an American flag.

“Ironworkers (use the sapling) as a tradition on all the topping out ceremonies and it represents a good job, no loss of life and is believed to bring prosperity and longevity and luck to the future occupants,” Farnen said. “You’ll see an American flag which symbolizes patriotism and the American dream.”

The crane slowed as the beam approached the three men perched almost 100 feet off the ground. Two of them grabbed it and swung it into place, and then they bolted it on to the skeleton, the white beam standing out among the red beams that made up the rest of the structure.

Pulsipher said the Mercy Joplin staff and the community have accepted and are supportive of the hospital in its current location, a component hospital located just southeast of the lot where the original building stood for so long.

“And it’s a beautiful hospital, but we’re excited for what’s going to happen two years from now as we get into this new place,” Pulsipher said. “So we stand here before the steel framework of what forward thinking design, and there’s some incredible design that has been built into this hospital going forward.”