SALTILLO — “God was with us,” Karen Simon firmly believes.
“That’s the only way we survived,” she said as she stood in front of the concrete slab that once supported the home she shared with her husband, Rick Simon, on Tower Road. Another slab could be seen right next door — that slab was the foundation of the home of their oldest son, Kenny, and his family.
“[God] didn’t want to take us all at the same time,” Karen said.
Karen and Rick waited out the storm in a safe room in their middle son Jacob’s house, which is less than one-quarter mile from where their house once stood. Huddled with them in that room were Jacob and his wife, Erica, and their 5-year-old daughter, Katy; Kenny, his wife, Rebecca, and their three children, Nicolas, 11, Kendra, 6, and Addyson, 5; Rick’s brother, Joe Simon, and his three children, Noah, 15, Gabe, 13, and Izzy, 6; and Erica’s sister Brandy Cook and her husband, Clint, and their 2-year-old son, Chandler. Joe’s wife, Diana, was out of town, and Rick and Karen’s youngest son, Jeremy, lives in Morrilton and was not there.
“But he got here as soon as he could,” Karen said.
Jacob and Erica’s home received little damage. Joe’s home at the corner of Tower and Clinton roads did receive some damage, but it is livable.
“We were all packed in that room,” Karen said. “We were in there about 10 minutes, I guess. I was playing with the grandkids, trying to keep them distracted. Some of the others were holding the door to the safe room, trying to keep it from opening.
“I really didn’t hear anything or feel anything. I was prepared for a hail storm.
“I didn’t know we’d been hit. After it passed, I texted ‘Storm passed. We’re OK.’ Little did I know what I was going to see. I was not prepared for this.
“This can all be replaced,” Karen said with tears in her eyes. “My family is safe. I have to keep telling myself that.”
Rick, who could be seen shaking hands and thanking several groups of people who had come to help on Wednesday, joined his wife.
“We’re making it. All of our kids are safe,” he said when asked how he was doing.
“This,” he said as he gestured to the scene around him, “is just stuff. Our family is OK.”
Rick said he and Karen had been watching the weather that Sunday afternoon.
“Jacob called and said he had received a tornado alert on his phone. He said we needed to get up to his house and get in the safe room,” Rick said.
“So we got Kenny and Rebecca and the kids and went up there. We got the wives and kids in the room, and the guys stayed outside and looked. At first, it looked kinda bad, and then in about 15 minutes, it really looked bad. We got in the safe room,” Rick said.
“Kenny opened the door just a little to see, and then we had to pull it closed and hold it to keep it from opening again. We had the radio going, so when we knew the storm had passed, we got out and began to look around,” Rick said. “We looked on one side, and everything looked OK. Then we looked on the other side, and Kenny said, ‘Your house is gone.’ Then he realized his was gone, too.
“You can’t believe it happened. There were no walls there, nothing. If you had been there (inside the houses), you know you would have been dead. You think, ‘What are you going to do?’”
Unfortunately, Rick and Karen know too well what they have to do. This is the second time they have lost their home to a tornado — they have also lost two homes to fire.
A tornado took their home in 1982. Rick and Karen had just begun to rebuild when, in 1990, they lost their house to fire. They built another house at the same location, but tragedy struck again in 2005 when their third home was destroyed by fire from a lightning strike.
Rick and Karen rebuilt a fourth time in 2008, and that is when Kenny moved his family to the farm, which contains 210 acres. Son Jacob built his home on the farm in 2011, and son Jeremy plans to build there soon.
“We’ll rebuild again, but not on these same two spots. We’ll find places a little farther down the road,” Karen said.
“I’m a country girl,” said Karen, who will retire this year after more than 30 years as a kindergarten teacher in the Vilonia School District. “We could move into town for a while, but city life is not for me.
“We’ve lived on this farm ever since we got married,” she said. “This is all we’ve ever known.”
Rebecca said she and her family are doing OK.
“Farming is Kenny’s life,” she said. “When he’s not working at the extension office, he’s working on the farm.” Both Rebecca and Kenny work for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, in Little Rock.
“And Nicolas is right there with him on the farm,” she said of her son. “He works the cattle with Kenny.”
On the day of the tornado, Rebecca said, at first Kenny was not concerned about the weather.
“The cattle were not acting funny,” she said. “But as the tornado got closer, they began to act funny. That’s when Kenny said we needed to get to the safe room.
“The sky was really green and it got very still. We got in the safe room, and Rick said, ‘At 7:50, we’ll get out.’
“I was getting very claustrophobic and was ready to get out. Kenny went outside and said the houses were just gone.”
Rebecca said they have very little personal belongings, basically just the clothes on their backs.
Rebecca said she was worried about losing one special thing in the tornado — her wedding ring.
“I had put it on the window sill and did not get it when we went off to church that morning,” she said. “When I got home, I told myself that I would get it in a few minutes. I never did get it, and I just knew it had been blown away.
“Erica found it … in the kitchen sink,” Rebecca said. “Kenny had [my ring] custom-made for me when we became engaged. It is very special to me.”
The Simons, who were the 2011 Faulkner County Farm Family of the Year, said they have been overwhelmed by the support of friends, family and even strangers. Several church groups have sent out people to help the family, and on Wednesday morning, a group from Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Cabot arrived to see what they could do.
“We didn’t know any of them,” Rick said. “The outpouring of help has really been special.”