Mark Wade and his family heard the dire warnings on TV and the tornado sirens, and were prepared to ride out the storm in their closet when a neighbor across the street on Vilonia’s Aspen Creek Drive yelled out: “Come over! We’re going in the storm cellar!”
So Wade, his wife and 3-year-old son joined 10 other people and seven dogs in a cramped underground shelter Sunday evening. When they emerged, their homes were gone. All gone. Stripped to the foundation.
“If we hadn’t gone to that cellar I don’t know if we would be here,” Wade said, picking through the debris of what was once his home.
The half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the Little Rock suburbs. Twisters or powerful straight-line winds were blamed in at least 17 deaths Sunday – 15 in Arkansas. The tornado outbreak continued Monday, with at least 11 more deaths in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.
The tornado that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower was probably at least an EF3 on the 0-to-5 EF scale, which means winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.
Among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall in Vilonia, a community also terrorized by a twister just three years and two days earlier.
But the epicenter of the tornado was Aspen Creek Drive, an upper-middle-class street of well-kept brick homes and friendly neighbors, an American dream kind of place.
Residents of the street said at least four of those killed lived there.
One of them was Daniel Wassom, a 31-year-old father of two. Wassom, who served in the Air Force, was huddled in a hallway of his home with his wife, Suzanne, and daughters Lorelei, 5, and Sydney, 7, neighbors and a relative said. At the height of the tornado, a large piece of lumber crashed toward the family.
Dan Wassom shielded Lorelei, taking a fatal blow to his neck, said Carol Arnett, Dan Wassom’s grandmother.
Lorelei suffered a shoulder injury and was hospitalized. Suzanne Wassom was hospitalized with a concussion, her aunt, Sherry Madden, said.
Dan Wassom’s final act of heroism didn’t surprise relatives.
“Dan always put his family first,” Arnett said, wiping away tears.
Madden said the family had just returned home from church, where the girls were fighting over who got to sit next to dad.
“He was the best dad,” Madden said.
A few houses down, neighbors Deanna Noble, 32, and Regina Chavez, 31, couldn’t find their trucks. Their homes were shredded and their vehicles were missing, perhaps blown hundreds of yards away.
Both tried clicking their truck remotes to see if they heard a distant honk. Nothing.
Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn’t piled into underground storm shelters, safe rooms and fortified community shelters after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.
Maggie Caro rushed with her husband and two children to a community shelter at a Vilonia school, where they were among the last to get inside the fortified gym before the doors were shut.
“They were screaming, `Run! Run! It’s coming!”’ Caro recalled.
Kimber Standridge and a friend had gathered up seven children they were watching and sped through the streets, getting to the shelter just minutes before the twister hit.
“When they shut the doors, we knew it was on us,” Standridge said. “Everybody hunkered down. There were a lot of people doing prayer circles, holding hands and praying.”
On Aspen Creek Drive, Noble and Chavez were lucky. Both thought the storm would blow over, and both stayed home, taking shelter in closets with their husbands and kids.
At the worst of it, the unthinkable happened: A neighbor man flew out of his own home into the side of the Noble home. Noble tried CPR “but I think he was already dead,” she said.
Chavez and her husband clung to the kids the whole time.
“I held onto my youngest, and my husband held onto my oldest,” Chavez said. “The windows were breaking but the kids were good because we shielded them.”
She said next time, she’ll take the family to a shelter – if there is a next time. Two twisters in three years has her skittish.
“We’re thinking about leaving Vilonia,” she said. “Twice is enough.”
DeMillo reported from Mayflower. Associated Press writers Justin Juozapavicius in Vilonia, Christina Huynh in Mayflower, Jill Bleed in Little Rock; Kristi Eaton and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City; and Roxana Hegeman in Baxter Springs, Kan., contributed to this report.