Shawn Riddle, standing on the concrete slab that used to be his home in Vilonia, started crying when his mother called and gave him an update on his younger son, who was still in the hospital.
“Tell him I’m proud of him. Love you,” the 39-year-old Riddle said Monday. Riddle said he was talking about his son, Brock, 10.
Riddle said he found all three of his children fairly close together on the slab and his wife under debris after Sunday night’s deadly tornado that decimated most of the homes in his Parkwood Meadows neighborhood off Naylor Road.
“He got med-flighted from Conway,” Riddle said of his 10-year-old son, who was dismissed from Arkansas Children’s Hospital on Monday.
“He had a very deep laceration in the back of his head. He was a trooper,” Riddle said, wiping tears with his right hand, his left hand bandaged with a broken finger, which happened in the storm.
Also injured were his 14-year-old son, Clayton, who goes by the nickname Conway; 17-year-old daughter, Savannah; and wife, Melissa, 38. She broke her pelvis and had deep lacerations to her leg and the back of her head, he said.
“She probably got the worst of it. One side of her face is black and blue,” he said of his wife.
Eight people were killed in Vilonia, including two children, and one man’s condition that was serious “deteriorated to critical,” Lori Ross, spokeswoman for Conway Regional Medical Center, said Tuesday morning.
As of Tuesday, nine tornado victims were still hospitalized, Ross said.
Riddle said all three of his children were out of the hospital, and his wife was at Conway Regional Medical Center.
He said the tornado that tore through Vilonia almost three years ago to the day — April 25, 2011 — was not nearly as bad as the one that hit Sunday night. That comment was echoed by several residents.
“We were here during the last tornado,” Riddle said. “I was hoping it would be like that — it just skipped over the top,” he said.
The tornado damaged his privacy fence last time; this time he has no home. His belongings — a smiling photo of him and his wife, clothes, furniture — are all in wet piles, or strewn about. Riddle said his wife of 18 years did a lot of scrapbooking, and he found some of their wedding photos.
Riddle, who works at Lowe’s in Conway, said he heard the weather reports that the tornado was “very wide.”
“I was worried, but … I was outside watching to see and, sure enough, I saw it. It was just a wide black wall, and it was coming this way. Trees were parting like the Red Sea.”
He said his family, plus his daughter’s boyfriend, Bradley Jenkins of Conway, were in the house.
“I told them we had to get in the closet and get down. It wasn’t that big of a closet,” he said. The children and his wife hunkered in the closet, while he and Jenkins tried to protect them with their bodies.
“That’s when it just gets blurry,” Riddle said. “There was a roaring noise, and the walls were shaking. You could hear glass breaking. You could see the sky outside — stuff was hitting us. My hand, when it broke, I remember that — stuff hitting my head. All you could hear was stuff breaking and flying around. It seemed like a real long time, but it probably wasn’t.
“Once it finally settled, I started screaming their names, just trying to find everybody,” Riddle said.
He said his wife was underneath wood and layers of brick. He tried to get her to sit up, but she couldn’t.
“She never could walk. She was just laying there moaning. Me and Brad went around, and we were able to find everybody,” Riddle said.
Riddle pointed to the family’s van, down the street and upside down.
Jenkins was able to get through to 911, but after 10 minutes, Riddle said he didn’t think an ambulance was coming.
He flagged down a truck, which didn’t have room for them. When he came back to check on his wife, “my kids were gone,” he said.
Someone told Riddle that his children were taken to a shelter. He frantically searched for them because he knew they needed to go to the hospital. He found them down the street.
A woman was in her car looking for a friend, and she took Riddle and his family to paramedics up the road.
From there, he got a ride with another woman, Sally Goff, he said.
“She loaded me and my youngest boy and daughter in the back of her SUV and took us to Conway. She was really a godsend,” he said. There wasn’t room for his wife and son Conway in the vehicle, and they were transported separately, he said.
Goff is an aide for English as a Second Language students in the Vilonia School District.
Riddle stood on what used to be his home, patiently doing interviews with anyone who asked and apologizing when he had to interrupt an interview to answer his phone.
Damaged vehicles were everywhere in the subdivision, many of them stuffed with plywood, tree limbs and debris. A Mylar “Congratulations” balloon was attached to one damaged car sitting in the street.
Mayor James Firestone looked in the window of the vehicle.
“They say don’t take shelter in a car. I always thought, ‘Why not?’ When you look at that, that’s just a death trap,” he said.
As he walked the street, Firestone looked at piles of people’s belongings — bicycles and books, photographs and furniture. “This is people’s lives out here,” he said.
Kara Berrier said she has been in Vilonia just a few months and was renting a home in the same neighborhood that her ex-husband lives in. His home was destroyed, and hers was heavily damaged, but still standing.
“I just bought new furniture,” she said. Berrier, 38, and her friend Heather Adams of Guy were trying to salvage the furniture. Berrier was happy, however, that she found her puppy under the house. She said the kennel he was in broke during the tornado.
Berrier said she was looking for photos from a scrapbook of her children: Emily, 6; Tyler, 17; and Noah, 14.
Adams said, “Please ask people, if they find any pictures, put them on the Vilonia Online Yardsale page or anywhere we can find them.”
Teela Baxter said her home was the first on the street into the subdivision.
“Everything’s gone,” the 28-year-old said.
She and her family — her husband, Matt, and their children, 5 and 2 — were coming home from Pleasant Baptist Church in Conway, and her friend April Greer called and told them, “Don’t come” because of the weather.
When Baxter saw what was left of her home, “there were no words – devastation. Disbelief just to stand there and see it.”
She said the belongings she most hates losing were “my kids’ stuff; baby books. My grandfather, who passed a year ago, he had built my daughter a rocking chair. My husband’s cradle that he used and we used with our kids, his grandfather made it, and it was in the attic. Things like that.”
However, Baxter said she and her family were “very blessed” to have been at church instead of at home.
At the back of the subdivision, a mother, her daughters and son-in-law worked to salvage what they could. A trailer, not theirs, was thrown into the front of the home.
“It’s crazy how it came through the same way again,” said Christi Fisher, who lives in Vilonia and teaches in Conway.
She and her younger daughter, Hannah Fisher, were working at the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Brittany and Nicholas White.
“It’s surreal, kind of,” Brittany said. During the storm, she said, they were across town in her father’s safe room.
“There were people who lost a lot more than we did,” she said. “It’s just stuff.”
“I told her it’s better to dig out stuff instead of them,” Christi said, starting to cry.
Everyone handled the stress of the situation differently.
Nick Conway, 33, was clearing debris, throwing pieces of wood to the side.
“Welcome to our house!” he said, spreading his arms wide and smiling.
His wife, Heather, said she took their two children — Caden, 8, and Alli, 7 months — to the safe room at Vilonia High School.
She said her husband was using humor to deal with the stress.
Heather’s sister-in-law, Lora Shaw of Vilonia, was helping with the cleanup.
“It’s way worse than the other one. From going through it before, the community pulls together in a big way,” she said.
Parkwood Meadows resident Bob Mann was laughing about a photo a friend found in the rubble on Mann’s property.
“I found a picture — this is really cool — from ’76 when we went to Southfork (in Dallas) of my mother wearing J.R. Ewing’s hat,” Mann, 53, said, laughing. “I found a lot of pictures of our kids and grandkids.”
He got serious, though, as he looked at the devastation and described how he felt.
“It’s kind of numb, you know? We’re really fortunate because we’re all safe. Not everybody out here is.”
Mann said he was coming home from his job at Bryce Corp. in Searcy, and he got to El Paso and went south to Cabot.
He said he hoped his wife, Anne, who can be “a little stubborn,” had gone to one of the school safe rooms.
“I drove down here and saw this and started walking to the school. I don’t know why I didn’t drive. … I got to the school and started yelling her name,” he said. When they saw each other, “we both started bawling,” he said.
“It’s just pick up the pieces and go one day at a time. We have so many good friends who have reached out for us,” Mann said.
“There are a lot of good folks around here. It’s a nice town. Somewhat of an unlucky town — but a nice town.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.