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Tuesday, September 16, 2014, 6:44 a.m.
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Road to recovery

Family moves forward after losing son, house

By Angela Spencer

This article was published May 29, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

karla-stracener-hugs-her-daughter-tillie-in-front-of-the-remnants-of-their-family-home-in-center-hill-the-home-was-destroyed-by-the-areas-april-27-tornado

Karla Stracener hugs her daughter, Tillie, in front of the remnants of their family home in Center Hill. The home was destroyed by the area’s April 27 tornado.

Tragedy struck the Stracener family when a tornado on April 27 turned the home David Stracener’s grandfather built in 1945 into a pile of rubble. David said that up to that point, it was the worst day in his life.

Thirteen days later, the family was hit with another tragedy. David and Karla’s son, Ben Stracener, and his fiancee, Samantha Fowler, died in a motorcycle accident after meeting with Ben’s pastor to talk about the couple’s upcoming marriage.

David and Karla’s new temporary residence — a camper — wheeled onto the property almost a month after the tornado. The couple had been staying at David’s mother’s house in Searcy. As the camper was placed near the slab that used to be the Stracener home, David, Karla and their daughter Tillie remembered Ben’s life and legacy.

“Ben was about to buy [an engagement] ring,” David said of the days right after the tornado hit. “He got his mom aside and said, ‘I know the house just blew away, and I was about to buy Sam a ring, but I’ll be glad to give you that $1,000 I was going to put down, and we can do that later.’ Of course we didn’t take it, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”

On the night of the tornado, Ben was in South Carolina for work, and Tillie was in Oklahoma City for school. David and Karla brought Karla’s elderly parents to their home for safety.

They were watching television weather updates, and the reports said the brunt of the storm had passed. David took his usual storm-watching position on the front porch, where he heard a noise he had never heard before.

“It was a roar,” he said. “It was like thunder but a constant decibel [level].”

He asked Karla to join him on the porch, and they both decided it would be wise to get into the master-bedroom closet in case the noise was from a tornado.

In Oklahoma City, Tillie saw a picture of the radar near her parents’ home. The circle indicating bad weather was over the location of the house, so she texted Karla to check on them. Karla informed her daughter that they were in the closet.

“They never get in the closet. Ever,” Tillie said. “Dad always watches [storms] from the front porch. I knew it was serious.”

The next text message Tillie sent went through as a regular text message instead of an iMessage, the text message format between iPhones. She said that is when she knew they had been hit.

“I called, and Dad said, ‘We’re OK,’” Tillie recalled. “‘The house is gone, but we’re OK.’”

It took 45 minutes for emergency workers to get to the house because of downed trees and power lines. Aside from minor cuts and bruises, the Straceners and Karla’s parents were unharmed, but Karla and her parents could not get out of the room.

“The house was just completely destroyed,” David said.

While the night of the tornado was the worst night of David’s life to that point, he said the next day was the best day of his life as friends, family, church members and strangers came out to help.

“The next day, when people started showing up, we had so many people come and help us clean up,” he said. “The response, the support, the love and the care were humbling, and we’re very appreciative of that.”

Ben worked for CFS Inspections testing safety features on firetrucks. After he got the call about the family’s house, he drove from South Carolina to be with his parents and help with the recovery.

Although Ben had known Samantha for some time through a mutual friend, the two had been dating about six months. David said it was love at first sight for the couple.

Before they moved forward with their relationship, Ben and Samantha had some religious differences they needed to reconcile. Two weeks before the couple died, Ben told his dad he was going to talk to Samantha one more time before they continued into engagement and marriage.

At the end of Ben and Samantha’s conversation, Ben told her it was important to him that the man be the spiritual head of the house. Samantha said it was important to her that a wife submit to her husband’s leadership. At that point, they felt they could continue with a future together.

On May 10, the couple met with Tim Norman, an elder at Airport Loop Church of Christ, where Ben was a member, and spent two hours in Bible study. Minutes after leaving that meeting, Ben and Samantha were killed in a motorcycle accident.

“They were soulmates. They had found each other,” Norman said. “They were well on their way to reconciling any differences they had religiously. Their future was laid out before them, and they were celebrating it.”

Ben was going to move across the creek from his parents’ home and build a two-bedroom log cabin with a loft. David said the deal was they would exchange houses when Ben and Samantha started having children.

“He’s my yard boy, but I was going to be his yard man,” David said.

After the accident, David went to Leslie Jewelers in Searcy to retrieve the ring Ben had designed and ordered for Samantha. The man at Leslie Jewelers called the company constructing the ring and asked them to overnight it, no matter what condition it was in. He said he would finish it in Searcy to make sure the families had that piece of jewelry.

David wrote a check to finish paying for the ring and left. The next day, David was called back to the jeweler and retrieved the finished ring, along with the check he had written. It had been voided, and the jeweler said it was the least he could do, considering the situation.

Ben and Samantha had separate funerals, but the families held a dual cemetery service, making sure the two were buried next to each other. They were buried in the same grave, and Samantha had her ring for the service.

Karla said she misses her son’s hugs. Karla’s father has said he lost his best friend when Ben died. Tillie said he was the best person she had ever met, and David said Ben was a loving and kind individual who got along with children and the elderly.

The Straceners plan to rebuild their home right where it used to stand. David said they are working through the grief of losing their son and the logistics of rebuilding their home, but they are not destitute, and they are not alone.

“When you lose everything, it’s just hard,” David said. “You lose your vehicles, you lose your house, your possessions, your son. It’s hard to get traction again. When all of that happened, it was like time just stopped.”

An online fundraising effort has been set up to help the Straceners rebuild. Friends have established the Stracener Family Tornado Relief site on GiveForward.com to raise $25,000 for the rebuilding of the home. Donations can be made at www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/02k4/stracener-family-tornado-relief.

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

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