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Widow, tornado survivors get new home

by Tammy Keith | July 24, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
Melinda Davis, 58, second from right, stands with her daughter, Crystal Yeakley, right, and Yeakley’s three children, from left, Tyler, 11, Maddie, 6, and Autumn, 4, in their new home in Vilonia built by Christian Aid Ministries and the Vilonia Disaster Recovery Alliance. Davis and her husband, the late David Davis, bought the print on the wall after they survived the 2014 Vilonia tornado. David was killed in a car wreck four days before the one-year anniversary of the 2014 tornado.

Melinda Davis doesn’t cry when she talks about the first tornado her family survived in Vilonia, or even the second that almost took her granddaughter’s life. It’s when she talks about being with her husband when he was killed in a traffic accident less than a year later that the tears come.

“They were shutting the door to the ambulance, and the highway patrolman was standing at the door, and he told me his name, and he said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but your husband didn’t make it.’”

A nurse who held David Davis’ hand and prayed with him told Melinda Davis that his last thoughts were about her. “He asked if I was OK, and I think after that, he drew his last breath,” Davis said.

After all they’d been through, she couldn’t believe his life ended this way.

The driver of the vehicle that hit them — a 37-year-old Greenbrier woman — was charged with negligent homicide, reckless driving and possession of a controlled substance. Her trial is scheduled for Aug. 9, according to Faulkner County Court Connect.

“The anger I have for this young lady …,” Davis said, pausing. “I also pray for her.”

Davis and her daughter, Crystal Yeakley, said their faith is what’s gotten them through every day since the first tornado in 2011 damaged their mobile home, after another one destroyed their home in 2014 and left them cut, bruised and broken, and after the man they counted on to take care of them was killed.

When Davis was at a yard sale after their home was destroyed in 2014, trying to buy items to replace what they’d lost, she said a woman told her, “‘Oh, y’all were so lucky.’ No, that was all God. Luck is for bingo. Luck doesn’t have a thing to do with that,” Davis said.

After the second tornado, Davis and her husband together picked out a framed print that hangs on the wall: “When life gets too hard to stand … kneel.”

Davis, Yeakley and Yeakley’s three children are settling into their new four-bedroom,

two-bath home in Vilonia, built by Christian Aid Ministries through the Vilonia Disaster Recovery Alliance. David sought help through the alliance after both tornadoes, Davis said.

Sandy Towles, case coordinator for the alliance, said that after the 2011 tornado, she met David, then Melinda.

“She’s a special lady,” Towles said. She helped the family get a bedroom suite in 2011; in 2014, they lost everything. Towles said the family was deserving of a home, but after David Davis died, their need was even greater.

Melinda Davis and her family moved from Mississippi to Vilonia seven years ago to be closer to family, and they settled in Black Oak Ranch Estates, which has a Conway address but is in the Vilonia School District.

David alerted the family that a tornado was headed toward Vilonia in April 2011. Melinda, Crystal, her husband at the time and the two children they had then went next door to a relative’s home. Davis said her husband, who had been monitoring the weather, came through the door and said, ‘It’s on its way.’

“We got in the hall and covered up. We heard trees falling,” Davis said. Her husband went to check on their animals, and on the way to the house, a tree hit him. “It just kind of stunned him,” Yeakley said.

The rest of them were OK. Yeakley’s daughter Madalynn — they call her Maddie — was 1 at the time, and Yeakley’s son, Tyler, was 6. Autumn wasn’t born.

Their mobile home had a huge hole in it. They weren’t able to get out of the neighborhood until 1 a.m., and they had to climb over downed trees, Davis said.

They put a tarp over the roof and moved into the living room of the home. Yeakley, her husband and children lived with her parents. The two families later moved into another mobile home in Black Oak Ranch Estates, but then they bought a home in Parkwood Meadows.

“It was pretty,” Davis said. It was a solid home, safe.

They’d only been there about two months when storm clouds gathered again on April 27, 2014, and people across Arkansas, particularly in Vilonia, started nervously watching the skies. David was flipping between television channels to monitor the weather. They thought it was going to miss them, but a tornado was headed toward Vilonia again.

“Seven of us got in a closet,” Yeakley said.

“David saw it,” Davis said. “He saw it coming. He looked at me and shook his head. We were singing “Jesus Loves Me” with the kids. You could hear things popping. The louder it got, the louder we got.”

Davis said she remembers going up in the air. “I was holding onto something, and my feet were going like this in the wind,” she said, waving her hands up and down.

Yeakley said her son, Tyler, flew over her and landed at a house next door, which they called “the half house,” because half was left standing among the decimated homes in the neighborhood.

“God had his hand on all of us, because afterward, David — he was flown out in the pasture behind us — he heard Crystal. She had the baby in her arms screaming the baby was dead,” Davis said.

Yeakley said she and her daughters were buried under debris, and she had to dig out. Autumn, then age 2, had no heartbeat.

“I froze. I didn’t know where anyone else was,” she said. “I heard Dad yell out, ‘She’s not dead! She’s not dead!’ I said, ‘Dad, she’s gone.’ He said, ‘No, she’s just knocked out.’” Yeakley

said she’ll never forget seeing her father. “He had boards sticking out of his legs, and he was running.” He had diabetes and had heart and other health problems at the time.

He took Autumn from Yeakley. “He immediately started CPR. He was walking and holding her and doing CPR. I was trying to dig out Madalynn.”

Tyler came walking up, Yeakley said, and he was bloody but calm.

“He said, ‘Mom, do I still have an eye?’” she said. He couldn’t see because of the blood.

He also told paramedics at the scene that he had a head wound, and he knew he had to stay awake, so he started reciting his multiplication tables.

Tyler, now 11, remembers a lot of that night. He said he told his family, “We’re hurt, we’re bloody, but God

saved us.”

Sixteen people died in Arkansas that night, including eight in Vilonia and four in Mayflower.

A man in the Parkwood Meadows subdivision, who had the only truck left unscathed, took the family to the highway to get help.

Yeakley said her father was still holding Autumn, pleading with God to let her live. “He kept saying, ‘Keep breathing, baby. She’s only 2, let her live. I know you’re mighty; let her be OK.’”

Yeakley said the man in the truck — whose name the family didn’t catch — jumped out and told responders, “This family needs help; this baby’s dying.”

A police officer took the toddler to Conway Regional Medical Center.

“I have to say Conway Regional did a great job because there were a lot of hurt folks there,” Davis said. She, David and Maddie were taken there, too. Yeakley went to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock.

Autumn was transferred immediately to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where she underwent a 5 1/2- to 6-hour surgery for an open-skull fracture, Yeakley said.

Tyler was soon airlifted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Yeakley recalled that when her father told Tyler he was going to get to ride in a helicopter, he said, “Well, that’s so awesome!” He said he’d always wanted to ride in a helicopter.

The family laughed at the memory. Tyler said he remembers putting his fingers in his ears because of the noise. He still has a long scar on the top of his head from the cut he sustained.

David had broken ribs and a piece of wood still sticking in his leg, as well as multiple cuts on his body. Davis laughed when she recalled that her husband was outraged when the medical personnel started cutting his clothes to get to his wounds. “He said, ‘Do y’all realize this is the only pair of pants I have?’”

A cut on Melinda’s ankle was sewn, but it had pieces of siding in it, and later she underwent surgery. Yeakley had a broken left arm, and Maddie had a small cut on her face.

They were shell-shocked after the incident. Yeakley said, “You go through a lot of emotional whys. ‘What do we do now?’ But you look around at other people who lost their lives, and ‘what am I complaining about?’”

All that was left of their home was a slab. Friends and strangers poured into the community to help people pick up the pieces and provide food, clothes and comfort. They said a friend, Sheila Saddler of Vilonia, spent hours washing some of the Davis and Yeakley families’ clothing.

“Todd and Natalie Smithhart, they were good about taking the children and helping out,” Davis said, “and his teachers from the [primary] school went and got Tyler from the hospital.”

Davis and her daughter’s family lived with Davis’ niece and her husband, Lynn and Robbie Alexander of Vilonia.

“She nursed me back to health,” Davis said of Lynn.

The family got back on their feet, slowly but surely. Yeakley said her father told them, “We’ll make it; we always do.”

On April 23, 2015, four days before the one-year anniversary of the tornado, Davis and her husband had left a doctor’s appointment in Greenbrier. He was driving her to Conway for an X-ray — and they were hit by another driver on U.S. 65.

“I didn’t see the girl coming or anything. I heard a loud noise. I said, ‘David, what’s going on?’” Davis said. The Davises’ vehicle went under the woman’s truck, and their vehicle flipped.

Davis said she remembers being trapped in their truck, yelling for help.

“The seat belt had bruised me up, and I was having trouble breathing,” she said. Davis looked at her husband. “David was still alive. The front seat was in the back, and he was trying to get up.”

Firefighters had to cut off a door to rescue them, and Davis climbed out. She said nurse Haley Wilcox of Greenbrier — Sheila Saddler’s sister-in-law — climbed in to be with David.

“I knew he was bad,” Davis said, recalling his labored breathing. “It looked like he had tried to miss her (the other driver), but he took most of the hit. He lived about 30 minutes. That nurse got in and held his hand and prayed with him.”

Yeakley said she got to the hospital and found out from an aunt that her father had died.

“Does that test your faith? It sure does. You begin to wonder, but you have to know that God doesn’t take or do things. He’s not evil,” Yeakley said.

Davis said she misses her husband of 36 years, especially when she’s sick, because they took care of each other. She’s disabled from a variety of health issues.

About two days before Christmas in 2015, the family found out they were getting a house. They were living with the Alexanders again because they couldn’t afford a house they’d moved into after theirs was destroyed by the tornado.

“God just kind of opened the door for that. Sandy came and announced to us we were getting a home. Mind you, she had been working with David since the first tornado,” Davis said. “We cried, and after she left, we were all crying and jumping and hollering. It tied up some ends where we were kind of lost.”

Davis said one of the men working on the home asked her what color she wanted the outside painted.

“When God has provided a home for you — I don’t care — you can put purple. I said the neighbors may not like it,” Davis said with a laugh.

Yeakley said the home has helped put a sense of normalcy back into their lives, especially her children’s lives. Maddie, who is now 6, carried White Socks, her new

black-and-white kitten, to the couch and sat close to Davis.

“My grandchildren, they have gone through more than any child this age should go through,” Davis said. They jump at loud noises and are afraid of storms. “They had a Paw Paw who really loved them.”

Yeakley said the girls cry for their grandfather “on a daily basis.”

She has strong feelings about the woman driving the truck that killed her father. “You didn’t just take a life — you took their life and your own kids’ lives,” she said. “It’s not about what you physically took; it’s what you changed. Their lives are going to be forever changed; our lives are going to be forever changed.”

Yeakley said her mother is “a very strong person. The tornado alone has messed me up. She got right back up.”

Davis laughed. “I have thrown a lot of shampoo bottles,” she said.

Their family has never been perfect and never will be, Davis said. “We’re still going to have little family squabbles, but you learn what love and being there for each other is, and God deserves all the glory.

“It’s sad, but if the testimony can help someone who’s gone through something like that, that’s good.”

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

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