FERNDALE (AP) — A fierce tornado that swept through Arkansas killed more than a dozen people, including two sisters and their father, part of a large family that had gathered for a "normal" evening before the storm drove them to seek shelter under a staircase.
"You could just see the wind was just crazy," Emily Tittle, 17, said Monday as she searched for keepsakes in the ruins of her family’s rural home west of Little Rock.
Tittle said she, her eight siblings and her parents scurried for safety under the stairs in the two-story house, but only half of them made it before the walls were obliterated by the twister. Her father, Rob Tittle, and two sisters, Tori, 20, and Rebekah, 14, were killed. All six of her other siblings were taken to hospitals, three of whom have since been released.
She said her mother is alive, but that she hasn’t heard from her since the night before.
Daniel Wassom was huddled in a hallway of a Vilonia home during the storm with his wife, Suzanne, and daughters Lorelei, 5, and Sydney, 7, neighbors and a relative said. Suzanne Wassom even posted on Facebook about it. At the height of the tornado, a large piece of lumber crashed toward the family. Dan Wassom, 31, who served in the Air Force, shielded Lorelei, taking the brunt of the blow to his neck, said Carol Arnett, Dan Wassom’s grandmother.
It was a fatal blow. Lorelei suffered a shoulder injury and was hospitalized. Suzanne Wassom was hospitalized with a concussion, her aunt, Sherry Madden, said.
"Dan always put his family first," Arnett said, wiping away tears. "They’re just good people. They love God and their children."
Daniel and April Smith moved to Vilonia last fall, focusing on the shiny new intermediate school that their two boys could one day attend. On Sunday, their sons, third-grader Cameron Smith and first-grader Tyler Smith, were killed when the tornado destroyed the family’s home.
Daniel and April Smith were seriously injured.
"They found a great house at a reasonable price, and they were looking for schools," Eric Hancock, a longtime family friend who often baby-sat the boys. "They had just built that new one. It just seemed right."
Tyler was 7. Hancock said Cameron was 9, though the Faulkner County coroner listed the boy’s age as 8.
Hancock said both boys loved baseball, fishing and God.
Cameron also enjoyed hunting, getting his first crack during deer season last year, Hancock said. Cameron fired at two but missed, his nerves getting the best of him.
Tyler, Hancock said, "was a pistol, with more energy than any 16 people I know."
"He was just a light in the world," he said.
Don Mallory was on the phone with his younger brother, 57-year-old David Mallory, when the storm struck Sunday night.
Don Mallory said he told his brother to get a flashlight and take cover.
"He said, ‘All right.’ That’s the last I heard from him," Don Mallory told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, adding that a neighbor discovered his brother’s body after the storm destroyed the house in Vilonia.
David Mallory’s prized possession was his brown-and-white 1955 Chevrolet that he only drove on Thursdays, his brother said. The car, which was parked in David Mallory’s garage on Sunday night, was discovered Monday more than 100 yards away, mangled and twisted around a tree.
"He liked to shine that car up and drive it around town," Vilonia Mayor James Firestone told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Firestone, a friend of Mallory’s for more than three decades, said Mallory was a single father of two grown children who worked as a carpenter and avid motorcyclist.
"He was just a good-old, laid-back, easygoing country boy," Firestone said.
An avid Arkansas Razorbacks fan since he could talk, 51-year-old Mark Bradley was one of the first reported fatalities in a deadly twister that touched down in Mayflower and cleared a trailer park on Fortner Drive. Bradley, a divorced man with two children in their 20s, had moved into his trailer with his black dog, Shieba, nearly five weeks ago, according to one of his sisters, Debby Lee Hopkins. Sometimes, Bradley would let a homeless man named James stay to watch a Razorbacks football game with him.
"He’s loved the Hogs since he was able to talk," Hopkins said Tuesday. "His first words were Mommy, Daddy and Razorbacks. ... If he had his dog, some fried chicken and some instant potatoes, he was good. He lived so simply."
A 21-year-old member of the University of Alabama swim team taking shelter in the basement of a home was among those killed by tornadoes that swept across the Midwest and South this week.
John Servati, a junior from Tupelo, Miss., was killed Monday night when a retaining wall collapsed, said Tuscaloosa city spokeswoman Deidre Stalnaker.
Servati, a business major who made the dean’s list, competed in three events at the Southeastern Conference championships last year. He was also a three-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
"John Servati was an extraordinary young man of great character and warmth who had a tremendously giving spirit," UA head coach Dennis Pursley said.
Servati scored for Alabama at the SEC Championships. He competed in the backstroke and freestyle and set two Mississippi state records in high school.
"John definitely had a genuine heart," Tide team captain Phillip Deaton said. "He was a carefree guy who always had this huge smile on his face. He was my training partner for three years and I can tell you that while he liked to goof around and have fun, when he stepped up on the block he was intensely focused. He was a competitor and an amazing teammate."
Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her Louisville, Miss., day care center, as a tornado wiped her business off its foundation, strewing it into the backyard of a neighboring home.
Bennett’s niece, Tanisha Lockett, said all but the one child had been picked up from Ruth’s Child Care Center before the storm hit. She said the 4-year-old had been coming to the center since she was a baby. The child, who has not been identified, was transported to a Jackson hospital. Her condition was not known.
Lockett said Bennett had been running her own child care center for seven years.
"She just wants to help children and run her own business," Lockett said. "I left her (Bennett) her and I wish I had stayed because she asked me to stay with her."
(Associated Press reporters Christina Huynh in Ferndale, Jim Salter in Vilonia and Jim Suhr in St. Louis are writing profiles about those killed in Sunday night’s tornado.)