VILONIA, Ark. – An E-F4 tornado claimed 16 lives in Pulaski and Faulkner Counties in 2014. Eight years later, people who lived through it said they will never forget that day.

Melissa Riddle nearly lost her life when the tornado blew her home away. She remembered praying over her family as the dark mass roared closer to her house, but that’s the last thing she recalled before waking up in a local emergency room.

“My husband found me underneath the brick and the rubble of our home,” Riddle said. “The only thing sticking out were my feet.”

Riddle said she lost everything: important family records, heirlooms and memories.

“I think about the photos we lost,” Riddle said. “I think about the children’s toys.”

Riddle and others who lived through it shared similar sentiments. Though they lost basically everything, they were genuinely more relieved to be standing eight years later.

Wade Lentz is a pastor for Beryl Baptist Church, a place where members were impacted. Lentz said he’s lucky to stand at the pulpit still Wednesday after a quick decision likely saved his life in 2014.

Lentz, like others in the area, sustained minor home damage in the 2011 E-F2 tornado that followed much of the same path. Because of this, he said he initially refused to take his family to his parent’s house down the road to seek shelter. 

“When it got bad enough, she said, ‘You can stay, but we’re going,'” Lentz said. “Then I decided to go with them.”

After the family hunkered down, they could hear the tornado. Driving back after it was finished, Lentz knew the moment he saw neighbors’ homes that his house was flattened.

“It was nothing but debris,” Lentz said.

A word often thrown around when discussing the 2014 tornado is “resiliency.” That’s because community members stepped in to help in the recovery effort immediately.

Friendship Baptist Church recognized the needs of its surrounding neighborhoods.

“We were able to provide food, normal toiletries, toothpaste, toilet paper, all those things,” said Charles Franco, an administrator for the church. “We were able to house families at different locations.”

Two families lived in the church’s gym for about two months after Sunday school classrooms were converted into apartment-style rooms, Franco said.

“I’ve never experienced something like that,” Franco said. “It just taught me that material things don’t matter. People need people.”

People help people, too. Because of that, people helped people rebuild.

It took about half a year, but Lentz and his family completely rebuilt their home in the same spot it stood before. Visitors could not tell a violent storm ever came through.

“What are the chances three tornadoes hit?” Lentz said. “We never considered moving. This is our community and it did not cross our minds.”

Riddle lives in a new home now, and a tornado shelter was a priority in the decision on where to live.

“We no longer say, ‘Oh, it can’t happen to us,'” Riddle said. “It has happened to us.”

Riddle and others who are alive today said this is not something they will ever forget. “Our world would become upside down and totally different than how it started that morning,” Riddle said.