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Tuesday, September 02, 2014, 3:27 p.m.
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Wedding among the rubble

Couple say vows at home destroyed in April 27 tornado

By Tammy Keith

This article was published May 11, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

angie-and-randy-wright-after-their-wedding-ceremony-at-the-site-stand-in-what-remains-of-their-home-in-saltillo-that-was-destroyed-by-the-april-27-tornado-angie-was-home-alone-and-hiding-in-the-closet-under-the-staircase-when-the-storm-hit-they-are-holding-a-wedding-present-a-sign-on-which-is-printed-there-is-always-always-always-something-to-be-grateful-for

Angie and Randy Wright, after their wedding ceremony at the site, stand in what remains of their home in Saltillo that was destroyed by the April 27 tornado. Angie was home alone and hiding in the closet under the staircase when the storm hit. They are holding a wedding present, a sign on which is printed: “There is always, always, always something to be grateful for.”

Angie Ryall, 46, and Randy Wright, 51, of Saltillo secretly planned to elope, but a tornado changed everything.

So they took their wedding vows May 2 under a clear blue sky and with their destroyed home as the background.

“We wanted me, her and the preacher. It didn’t work out that way,” Randy said.

Instead, the couple were married in front of friends, relatives and uninvited members of the media.

“There were probably 100 people,” Randy said. “I was so nervous; I wanted to just take off running in the woods.”

Angie, a second-grade teacher in Mayflower, said they planned to elope Friday (May 9).

“We wanted it to be simple; we wanted it to be private,” she said.

She was at their home in Saltillo taking a leisurely bath April 27 when the storm started brewing.

“I had bought this detox bath. It was kind of expensive; I was going to get my money’s worth out of it. It says to stay in there 40 minutes. I was in the bathtub, and my phone kept going off, but I was relaxing, you know?”

Angie said she did call Randy’s older daughter, Jessica, in Russellville to check on her because of the tornado warnings; then Angie returned to her soak.

“The electricity finally went out. I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to get out of the bathtub and find some clothes in case there really is a tornado,’” she said.

Angie, who grew up in Conway, said she isn’t afraid of storms.

“Mother was terrified. When the wind blew, we had to go get in the storm cellar. Our neighbor had a storm cellar.”

Meanwhile, Randy, who was a truck driver, was monitoring the weather as he drove a load to Texas.

“I just had got to Corpus Christi, and I knew there were tornadoes in the area, so I kept tabs with [Angie] all day. Well, then, a friend of mine called me and said, ‘It’s about to pass by your house.’ They saw it on TV,” Randy said.

In addition to talking to Angie, he talked to his daughter, Bailey, who was taking shelter in her bathtub in Vilonia.

“She was crying, saying, ‘Dad, I love you,’” Randy said.

“I pulled over and just threw up; I was so nervous,” he said.

He called his supervisor to tell him that he was going to drop off his load and turn around and head for home. The man told Randy that because he’d already driven 11 hours, he needed to wait.

Nothing was going to keep Randy from going home to see about his family.

“I said, ‘I’m coming back.’ He said, ‘We’ll miss you,’” Randy said, meaning the man was going to fire him.

As Randy raced toward home, Angie got a phone call from her sister, Gail Manion of Conway.

“She said, ‘Angie, you’ve got to take shelter; it’s right on top of you,’” Angie said. “Then Randy called and said, ‘It’s right on you.’”

She said she got in a closet under the stairwell and took her dog, a boxer named Biggie, and Randy’s dog, a pit bull-boxer mix named Rocky, “the sweetest dog ever.”

Before, the dogs couldn’t be in the same room together without fighting.

“They were both up in my lap, … and they weren’t fighting. So I knew it was bad,” Angie said.

Because Angie was beginning to move her belongings into the home, she also had with her a plastic tub of personal mementos.

“I get in there and no more sit down than I was texting my sister and Randy. I said, ‘It’s here,’ and I heard the window bust out. I didn’t hear the train sound. I never saw it; it just looked like it was raining.

“I heard the roof come off, and the walls were moving in and out, and then water was pouring in through the stairs, because I was in the closet under the stairs. The dogs were shaking.”

The smoke alarms were going off, Angie said, and she was afraid there was a fire. She was afraid to come out of hiding, too.

At first, her phone didn’t work. When Randy finally reached her, she said he told her she had to get out.

“She said, “Oh, my God; it’s gone,’” Randy said. “I felt helpless.”

Angie said the only things left were two crosses hanging on the wall where the closet was, and her purse and personal laptop, which were in the living room.

Their wedding rings were in her purse. Angie said they’d been wearing them at home to see how they liked them, and when someone came over, she shoved them into her purse.

Clean dishes were in the dishwasher and in perfect condition, she said. A work laptop, which had her students’ schoolwork on it, had a broken screen, but she thinks it can be fixed.

“I have all my lesson plans on there,” she said.

Randy drove all night to get to her.

“I hit all that traffic in Mayflower thinking I’d never get home — running through ditches, dodging telephone phones,” he said.

He had found out his daughter was fine and that his brother’s home in the The River Plantation subdivision was “wiped out,” he said, but the family was safe.

Angie said she was at their property trying to sort through the remains when he got back.

“Oh, my gosh. The first two days, it was just waves of nausea and crying — just a big blur, automatic pilot,” she said.

They had to get their medications refilled, and they went to Walmart, and she bought a notebook.

“That’s the best investment I’ve ever made. Our whole life is written down in that notebook,” she said.

A group of volunteers came and helped them clean the site. Then the couple’s attention turned toward their wedding plans.

They had planned to get married secretly at the Faulkner County Courthouse by her friend, District Judge Susan Weaver, before going to Kentucky, where Randy grew up, and making a few other stops.

Angie said she knew she couldn’t take off work again, and they had a mess to deal with.

“He said, ‘Well, the schools are out this week. Let’s just get married this week,’” Angie said.

Weaver had already planned to come with volunteers to help with cleanup.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we just get married while you are out here helping? Tell everybody to come and wear work clothes, and then we’ll just pick up debris afterward,’” Angie said.

“I posted on Facebook, and then everybody went crazy,” Angie said.

Friends she hadn’t heard from in 25 years contacted her. Before she knew it, Angie said, they had everything from furniture to a wedding cake donated.

News stations called to hear the inspirational story of the couple getting married among the ruins.

“I don’t want this to take away from the people who died,” Randy said. “I don’t want it to be like we’re showboating.”

Angie said, “I told Susan, ‘I want you to be yourself, and us be ourselves and just enjoy it and not be nervous.’”

The bride and groom wore shorts and bright orange T-shirts.

“Before the ceremony, we had a bunch of people cutting wood and working,” Randy said.

He had owned the home on the peaceful piece of property since 1979, he said.

Angie said they met through an online dating site in February 2013.

“We went out on a blind date and just immediately fell for each other, and we have been together ever since,” she said.

Weaver said that with the help of the Internet, she came up with vows unique to the couple and the situation.

“They’re just awesome; they’re just fun and the true inspiration of seeing a positive in such a negative,” she said.

In part, Weaver read:

“A husband and wife should never confuse love of worldly treasures, for even if worldly success is found, only love will maintain a marriage. Today, Angie and Randy are demonstrating their love as they have lost the worldly treasures. They hold true to 1 Corinthians 13, that three things remain: hope, faith and love, the greatest being love, and that love never fails.”

She also had Randy repeat to Angie: “I know sometimes you can be difficult and stubborn, but I have to admit, you’re totally worth it.”

When they exchanged rings, Weaver said, in part: “May you always hold each other and give strength to each other to hold on during the stresses and storms of life.”

Randy said the vows were perfect for the situation.

“I never would have dreamed a week ago that I’d be sitting here in this rubble today and all this has transpired,” he said.

“You would not believe the people, the total strangers out of the blue who came up here to help.”

As he talked, 15 Mount Vernon-Enola seniors had chosen on their skip day to help him clean his property.

“Humanity — there’s still good in us yet,” he said.

Randy quit his trucking job, and a former employer, Custom Tool & Die Inc. in Cabot, called and offered him a job.

“If I can help it, I’ll never be gone overnight again,” he said.

Randy said he got “choked up” when he thought about the experience.

“It’s just like a new beginning, the marriage and the rebuilding,” he said.

Angie said the new home will have some sort of tornado shelter.

She said their story, far from private, has been on several television stations and on the Today show.

Someone told Angie that maybe the network would pay for them to have a “proper wedding.”

“There’s no topping the wedding we had,” Angie said. “It was perfect.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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