BAY, Ark. — The first tornado touched down in a field outside this small town, leaving a cluster of leafless trees with their tops sheared off. Some tilted northeast, pointing toward a 250-mile path of destruction across four states. Another storm would spawn tornadoes carving a second devastating trail just to its east and south.
Nearly 100 people died in the tornadoes that whirled through Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois last weekend, ripping through factories, city halls and nursing homes.
In the days after, The Washington Post traveled to some of the towns hit by the two fiercest storms that unleashed the most violent twisters to chronicle their destruction. In between, we found tales of heroism, heartache and fortitude.
An assistant manager at a Dollar General store in Leachville, Ark., ran to shield one of her employees from a collapsing wall. She died when the structure toppled on her instead.
About 130 miles away, a woman trapped beneath the wreckage of a candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., called her mom to say goodbye. She escaped, pulled from the debris by a team of volunteers. Eight of her co-workers were not so lucky.
And in Samburg, Tenn., neighbors rescued an older woman who had been tossed into a tree. She was hanging upside down unconscious, her nearby home destroyed.
A few days later, Samburg residents came together at Gretchen Hutchinson Activity Center for an evening briefing on recovery efforts amid the stacks of donated food and clothing.
The tornado had laid waste to this lakeside community. The City Hall was a mangled pile of metal and wood, and there was no longer a post office or a working power grid. But every plea to maintain hope was met with rousing applause from the nearly 200 residents at the briefing.
“That’s what we do,” Connie Hopper, a local Red Cross volunteer, told the crowd over the rumble of generators keeping the lights on. “People are hurting. But y’all know they’re hurting everywhere. For more than 200 miles. We’ve got to come together.”
The tornado skipped across the rice and cotton fields of northeast Arkansas, kicking a barn to splinters and reconfiguring metal granaries as it spewed debris in all directions.
Then it bore down in Monette, population 1,700.
As power lines snapped, sending flashes of electric light into the night, firefighters, local storm chasers and some neighbors raced to the site, launching a delicate effort to pull residents from beneath the debris. A man in his 80s was pulled from the rubble in his pajamas, then died.
When the fire department in nearby Trumann got a distress call from Monette, Chief Revis Kemper dispatched three firefighters. He was monitoring what looked like another band of storms coming through, uncertain if his department should set off its tornado sirens.
“We didn’t want to set them off too early and then see it not hit,” he said.
They finally triggered the alarms, filling the night with their mournful wail. Five minutes later, the tornado slammed into the fire station, blowing out its roof and nearly sucking a firefighter into its maw as he clung to a fire engine side-view mirror while being pummeled by debris.
More than 200 homes were severely damaged. A factory and warehouse complex that was once home to the Singer Sewing Co. factory was beyond repair — an economic lifeline in the city of 7,000, extinguished in a heartbeat.
“It’s just been hit so badly,” said Barbara Lewallen, Trumann’s mayor, working to maintain her composure in front of the roofless firehouse. “It’s going to have to eventually come down.”
A mile away, Tanner Morgan and Elizabeth Regina smiled as family and friends showed up to what was left of their house: a front corner room and an entryway with a cheerfully painted red door.
The tornado woke them and they ran toward an interior closet. Morgan tried to pull in their Alaskan husky, Sally, but the frightened dog ran off into the angry wind.
As Morgan struggled to pull the closet door shut, he saw pieces of wall, insulation and wood paneling peel away “like we were in a sandblaster.”
When they reopened the door, they had a clear view from where the kitchen once stood of a neighborhood laid to waste. Greeting them was Sally, who had survived.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Morgan said, his voice hoarse with emotion while the dog sniffed at some debris. “That’s our kid.”
In Leachville, Patricia Austin picked through her waterlogged belongings outside her roofless house and grieved for her friend June Pennington, the Dollar General assistant manager who died saving a co-worker.
Austin, 71, said a neighbor had invited her over for coffee the day of the storm. When it hit, they were still there, out of the tornado’s path, while the roof of Austin’s house flew away.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I would have still been in the house,” she said about the neighbor. “She basically saved my life.”
The thought triggered memories of Pennington. Austin, who worked as a cashier at the same Dollar General, said the selfless act was just like her friend “Junebug.”
“She was a wonderful lady,” Austin said, softly crying as utility workers repaired the power lines along Leachville’s lifeless downtown strip.
The tornado came riding into Samburg like a marauder.
When it was done, the City Hall, post office and dozens of houses were shredded.
Robin Taylor spent her 57th birthday searching what was left of her house, which she’d just bought in July, for family photographs and artwork she hung the day the tornado hit, careful to step along the center beam that barely held up the wobbly floor.
She huddled that night in a hallway with her mother, fighting to keep the older woman’s wheelchair steady as the house lifted and shook.
Afterward, they found their elderly neighbor hanging upside down from the branch of a felled cypress tree. Her home had been destroyed.
The woman was rescued. And Taylor was in good spirits despite the damage, thankful she has homeowner’s insurance.
“I call this my ‘happy to be alive’ day,” she said about her birthday while a porcelain Santa Claus figurine in the kitchen grinned behind her, undamaged beneath a gaping hole in the roof.
Nearly 50 miles away in the town of Dresden, Cathy Gallimore stared blankly at the incision carved through Main Street. A tornado spawned from a different storm on Friday night buzz-sawed one side of the block — flipping a truck on its roof — while leaving the other side with barely a scratch.
Gallimore’s Victorian-style house with a wraparound porch was on the losing side. She had painstakingly restored the 111-year-old home on her salary as a steakhouse server, adding an antique dining table with matching chairs to host holiday family meals.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Gallimore, 59, lost work. No longer able to keep up with her expenses, she decided to cancel her house insurance, saving $435 a month.
Now, she’s out the $50,000 she poured into the home with a newly collapsed roof, no windows and just a sliver of porch.
“I got back to work last weekend and was going to get the insurance back today,” Gallimore said. The antique table and chairs sat on her lawn.
Kaitlyn Webb and her family were hit twice.
Webb was among the 100 candle factory workers trapped in Mayfield, Ky., after a tornado chewed up that city about 20 miles across the Kentucky border.
Webb lay beneath a collapsed wall with a broken ankle and, unsure she’d survive, managed to call her mother, Joan Turnbow, to say, “I love you.”
“I’m coming to get you,” Turnbow replied, running to the basement in their home at 211 E. Main Street in Dresden to fetch her car keys.
That’s when the buzz saw passed through.
“Luckily, she didn’t find her keys,” said Webb, 20.
On Friday night, Don Wright peered out at the hills of pecan and maple trees behind his house in Cayce. He saw a twirling black shape surrounded by lightning. It was headed right toward him.
Wright, 71, ran to an interior closet and yanked the door shut just as it struck, holding onto a shoelace he had tied around the latch as the wind worked to wrench open the door.
“I didn’t hear much but the roaring,” Wright said over the drone of chain saws being used to clear out the toppled trees.
Around the bend, Jimmy and Joy Johnson survived the storm in a small hallway, huddled with their nephew Cooper, 4, and his grandmother Jo Ann West. As the tornado passed, West clung to a framed copy of the Lord’s Prayer that fell on her head from a nearby wall.
Most of the Johnsons’ home blew away, but the hallway held firm. Cooper fretted about the family cat afterward, sounding unfazed. But he broke down in his mother’s arms when she arrived to pick him up, said Jordan O’Neal, 35, the Johnsons’ son.
A few days later, O’Neal carted away the remnants of the house, which was not covered by insurance. And he marveled at how local residents had showed up out of nowhere to pitch in. “People that don’t even know you,” O’Neal said, weeping as his defensive lineman’s frame filled the space that saved his family, “offering to help.”
Thirty miles away, Luis Pardo surveyed the ruins of his mini-empire in Mayfield, Ky.
A Chilean immigrant who came to the United States on a college soccer scholarship, Pardo, 40, owns a quadrant of properties along South Street, a commercial block in this city of about 10,000. He started with a South American restaurant, which became a banquet hall. Then, he bought land for an auto detailing shop and a used-car lot.
Finally, last October, he opened a regional “soccer factory” training complex with indoor and outdoor fields. It was his crowning achievement, he said.
None of that stood now, apart from a lot full of crumpled cars and outdoor soccer fields covered in debris. And none of it was insured, Pardo said, because he was working on getting an affordable rate that covered all his properties.
“You never think you’re going to lose everything at once,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a tornado coming through the city.”
A day before President Biden visited Mayfield to offer assurances of federal aid, the soccer kids and their parents showed up with rakes to clean the debris from the fields. “Looks like you’ve got a lot of good support,” one man said, gesturing to the kids. “Just tell us what you need, okay?”
“Sounds good,” Pardo said, as more than 20 young soccer players raked the field. “We may play a game after.”
Many people compare the sound of tornadoes to a freight train. In Dawson Springs, residents said it sounded more like a lawn mower grinding through the trees as if they were soft grass — more ferocious and surreal.
So far, the death count from the tornado that wiped out three-quarters of houses in this community of about 2,500 stands at 13, but officials say that number could rise. There are a lot of people still missing in the hometown of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, the father of Gov. Andy Beshear (D).
“You could just hear people crying for help,” said Assistant Police Chief Lance Nosbusch, who rode out the twister in a jail cell. “So we just started running through debris, listening, and we started carrying people down to the main highway to try to get them medical help.”
About 90 miles away, a tornado from a different storm struck Bowling Green. At least 15 people died, including seven children — four from the same family.
The tornado chewed through the recently built Moss Meadows neighborhood, home to refugees and immigrants who have altered the city’s landscape amid the southern Kentucky forests and fields.
“We never really thought it would happen, especially in our neighborhood,” said Joanna Escobar, 23, who huddled in a closet with her 5-year-old daughter as the wind tore into her house.
After nearly a week of ruin, the glow of support has started to dim and reports of looters picking through people’s belongings prompted the Kentucky National Guard to post soldiers in some heavily affected areas.
Rubén Carrazan was unsure he could move on. His family was okay. But he was haunted by the memory of a Bosnian neighbor who appeared at his front door the night of the storm carrying a dead infant with a shard of glass buried in her skull, shouting, “She’s not breathing!”
Carrazan had trouble sleeping in the days that followed, with a loop of the baby, the woman, the sirens and the sounds of people begging for help playing over and over in his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “This is something. I can’t live with that. I don’t know.”
Just to the northeast of the city, an empty Taco Bell surrounded by shattered glass marked the storm’s path toward Edwardsville, Illinois, where a tornado killed six people inside an Amazon distribution warehouse. It moved on to cause damage elsewhere before it finally mellowed into rain.
Gerrit De Vynck and Tim Craig contributed to this report.