Dazed residents of Vilonia again feeling the loss

‘Just, there was nothing’

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK MCFARLAND --04/28/14-- Don Mallory, who's brother David Mallory, 58, was killed when his house was destroyed by the tornado that hit Vilonia Sunday night looks at the twisted remains of a 1955 Chevy that was one of his brother's prized posessions.

VILONIA — Don Mallory was on the phone with his younger brother, David, when the tornado hit Sunday evening.

David’s lights had flickered, and Don told him to get a flashlight and take cover.

“He said, ‘All right.’ That’s the last I heard from him,” Don said.

When he couldn’t reach David after that, Don immediately took off for his brother’s home. He found David’s house demolished. David’s pickup was 50 yards away in a pond.

“I was hollering for him, and I couldn’t get an answer. It was dark,” Don said Monday with tears in his eyes, standing in the splinters of what remains of David’s home.

“A neighbor found him.”

David Mallory, 58, was one of at least 11 people — two children and nine adults — killed in Faulkner County on Sunday by a tornado that mangled businesses and leveled homes to their slabs. Most of the deaths were in Vilonia, where a tornado nearly three years ago claimed five lives.

Authorities said they had no estimates about the number of people injured or buildings damaged, but dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed.

“I’m not sure people are even bothering to count that,” Faulkner County spokesman David Hogue said.

On Monday, authorities set a 7 p.m. curfew for the damaged parts of Vilonia. Only emergency crews and law enforcement officials were allowed to continue to work there, Hogue said. Nonresidents were asked to leave by 7 p.m., and residents who chose to stay were asked to remain inside their homes until 7 a.m. today.

The tornado, tentatively rated as an EF3 with wind speeds between 135-165 mph, hit Sunday just as darkness fell, which complicated rescue efforts. Emergency crews went house-to-house searching for victims.

When Bobby McElroy, his fiance and her teenage son heard that the tornado was headed in the direction of their house on Main Street, they ran to his storm shelter. They held the doors shut as the storm raged. When it became quiet, the three emerged into darkness.

As their eyes adjusted, “It looked like a bomb had went off. Our house … just, there was nothing,” McElroy said. “I looked across the street, and all these stores had just folded in. So I started yelling to see if there was anyone trapped.”

McElroy heard two voices calling for help and dug through the concrete and broken jars that had collapsed at the Dollar General store.

“I just kept digging until I found them. There was a girl and a man that had gotten in the bathroom, and the metal door jamb had held up,” he said. “It saved them. All the rubble had piled up around them, but there was this pocket under the door jamb.”

McElroy said he then ran to some houses behind the store and helped an elderly man and his son out of the ruin.

As searchers accounted for residents Monday morning, McElroy shouted to them, “I got them out last night. We got them. They’re safe.”

“I don’t know how many people I got out, I just kept digging,” he said.

Southeast of McElroy’s neighborhood, Teddy and Michelle Maxwell searched through what was left of their home Monday on South Coker Road. It was the fourth time since 1973 that a tornado had hit in that same spot.

Michelle’s brother, Gary Leber, said the couple had just rebuilt their home after the tornado three years ago.

“It has something to do with the geography,” he said of the home’s location and tornado frequency. “If they predict one coming across the interstate at Mayflower, this is where they end up.”

The 2011 storm tore the roof off of the Maxwells’ home but left many of their possessions inside and untouched.

“This time it took a direct hit, and it was just gone,” Leber said while looking for his sister’s belongings hundreds of yards away from where the house had stood.

Teddy Maxwell paused to look out over what was left of his home.

“This is our second time down the street you could say,” he said, gesturing to belongings that were scattered over the next half mile and beyond.

Across the road from the Maxwells, the pastor of Beryl Baptist Church — which served as a shelter Monday — said he almost decided to stay in his home as the tornado approached.

“I said, ‘Man, it’s not going to take the same path. We’re just going to stay here,’” Wade Lentz said, referring to his home, which received $40,000 in damage in the 2011 tornado. “Fortunately, I listened to my wife because if we had stayed, we wouldn’t have survived.”

Lentz, his wife, Amanda, and their three young sons left for his parents’ house nearby a mere 15 minutes before the storm hit.

If they had stayed home, they would have taken shelter in a bathroom, Lentz said.On Monday, all that remained of his home was a bare slab of concrete. His parents’ home was not damaged.

“This tornado here was a different monster for sure,” Lentz said. He said he was grateful for the help of his church members, about 15 of whom were helping him search the debris for family photos,clothing and Oreo, the family’s black-and-white rat terrier. As of late Monday afternoon, the dog was still missing.

Gary and Karen Seeds live on Mount Olive Road, one road over from the Lentzes. They had recently finished rebuilding and burning the debris from the tornado three years ago that hit their home, Karen said.

“I don’t know where we’re going to go, but we’re not going to rebuild,” Gary said, shuffling debris with his foot. “Two times in three years is too many.”

The couple have lived in their home for 27 years. Wedding announcements from their 1970 marriage, vinyl records bought on the day Elvis Presley died and receipts from the funerals of Karen’s parents were found under the remnants of their home’s second story, no won the ground.

On Sunday, the couple had taken shelter in their basement with their two dogs and four cats for about half an hour until the tornado has passed over them.

Less than 100 yards away, Vilonia’s newest school — which was still under construction — is now a warped mass of twisted girders and insulation.

“They were trying to open up in August, but I don’t think they’re going to now,” Karen said.

On Aspen Creek Drive in the Parkwood Meadows subdivision off Naylor Road, people dug through rubble Monday hunting for pets and belongings. One teenage girl found her class ring, a man found his cat in an air pocket in the rubble, and families salvaged clothes and mementos.

Linda Mulligan stood with two of her friends, staring at the floor where she, her husband and her two stepdaughters — ages 18 and 10 — were standing when the tornado hit.

“I stood in the living room yesterday and told Tony that closet is where we should go if there was a tornado,” she said. “We were blown a few feet into there. You can see that board, I shouldered all of that with my back, and the girls were there under me.”

“The sirens only went off once, 15 minutes before it came. If we hadn’t been watching the news and if my husband hadn’t gone outside and seen it coming over the hill, we wouldn’t even be here right now,” Linda said. “I don’t remember how we got out. I don’t remember anything about it. I just remember going to the hospital to get X-rays and make sure everyone was OK.”

On North Street, Don Mallory searched for his brother’s belongings in a field strewn with broken trees and David’s power tools.

“We’re just trying to pick up the pieces as memories,” he said. His brother was a talented carpenter who loved to work on cars.

Don said he found several of his brother’s family photos, but he was still looking for his brother’s prized possession — a brown and white 1955 Chevrolet that David doted on and drove only on Thursdays.

“He had just got it fixed up with wheels,” Don said. “Have you seen it?”

About 10:30 a.m., a man called Don on his cellphone. Searchers had found the car.

It had been parked in David’s garage Sunday night. On Monday, it was more than 100 yards away, mangled and twisted around a tree.

“I thought you were going to call me and tell me the ’55 was intact,” Don told the man.

“I was hoping I could,” the man replied.

A safe room helped a Vilonia family escape Sunday's tornado without injury even as the home it was in was destroyed.

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Mike Hendrixson and Chuck Henninger of Paron recollect on Sunday's storm that swept through their community. Both men had damage to their property.

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Front Section, Pages 1 on 04/29/2014