- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

VILONIA, Ark. (AP) - Mark Wade and his family heard the dire warnings on TV and the tornado sirens, and were prepared to ride out the storm in their closet when a neighbor across the street on Vilonia’s Aspen Creek Drive yelled out: “Come over! We’re going in the storm cellar!”

So Wade, his wife and 3-year-old son joined 10 other people and seven dogs in a cramped underground shelter Sunday evening. When they emerged, their homes were gone. All gone. Stripped to the foundation.

“If we hadn’t gone to that cellar I don’t know if we would be here,” Wade, 28, said Monday, picking through the debris of what was once his home.

The half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the Little Rock suburbs. Twisters or powerful straight-line winds were blamed in at least 17 deaths Sunday - 15 in Arkansas. The tornado outbreak continued Monday, with over a dozen more deaths in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.

The tornado that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower was probably at least an EF3 on the 0-to-5 EF scale, which means winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.

Among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall in Vilonia, a community also terrorized by a twister just three years and two days earlier.

But the epicenter of the tornado was Aspen Creek Drive, an upper-middle-class street of well-kept brick homes and friendly neighbors, an American dream kind of place.

Until Sunday.

Complete lists of the dead haven’t been released, nor their addresses, but residents of the street said at least four of those killed lived there.

One of them was Daniel Wassom, a 31-year-old father of two. Wassom, who served in the Air Force, was huddled in a hallway of his home with his wife, Suzanne, and daughters Lorelei, 5, and Sydney, 7, neighbors and a relative said. At the height of the tornado, a large piece of lumber crashed toward the family.

Dan Wassom shielded Lorelei, taking a fatal blow to his neck, said Carol Arnett, Dan Wassom’s grandmother.

Lorelei suffered a shoulder injury and was hospitalized. Suzanne Wassom was hospitalized with a concussion, her aunt, Sherry Madden, said.

Dan Wassom’s final act of heroism didn’t surprise relatives.

“Dan always put his family first,” Arnett said, wiping away tears.

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