- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

ATKINS, Ark. (AP) — On Southeast Fourth Street, everyone steps outside as storms come. When no one saw the Cherry family this time, people assumed they weren’t home.

And for as long as he lives, James Dillion will wish he’d checked.

Strong thunderstorms aren’t uncommon as the seasons change in north-central Arkansas, but last week’s storms gave Mr. Dillion enough pause to call his wife at the city water department and tell her to come home. They picked up two neighbors and drove a quarter-mile up the road to another neighbor’s tornado shelter as the sky grew worse.

It wasn’t until the nine inside shut the shelter’s door that Mr. Dillion’s wife, Ann, made the horrible realization that the Cherry family might be huddled in their manufactured home.

“Where is Jimmy and Dana?” Ann Dillion asked, then started to cry.

The Cherry family had moved several years ago to the rural street, known to some as Swimming Pool Road since the community’s dipping hole sits along the country lane. To get there, a driver passes Atkins’ old train station, its small fire department and, curving up a state highway, turns left past several neatly kept bungalows, the city’s subsidized housing.

The Cherrys put their home about a mile up the road, a three-bedroom building with space for their 10-year-old daughter, Emmy, and their two dogs. Their lot had enough land for their chickens to roost and their beloved horses to graze.

As the storms came in Tuesday, though, no one saw any of them.

The wind roared as Mr. Dillion and the other eight waited out the storm inside the shelter. They talked among themselves, one woman becoming nearly hysterical as the noise grew louder and louder as the tornado approached. And they kept worrying about the Cherrys.

“I look out and the tornado was right on top of us. We slammed the door on it, and I knew they were in that house,” Mr. Dillion said.

The noise subsided. The shelter door opened to a dark sky and a path of destruction across the fields. Pickup trucks sat tipped over with caved-in windows. What trees were standing were stripped of their limbs.

And the Cherry home simply was gone. Piles of debris sat in Dillion’s fields where his 12 head of horses ran free. All that remained of his neighbor’s home was the concrete slab and an exposed water pipe, still flowing after the storm.

Rain began to fall as the survivors called out for the Cherrys. They found the bodies of Dana and Jimmy Cherry in Mr. Dillion’s pasture, about 150 yards from their home. It took searchers until long after nightfall to find Emmy’s body.

“I’d give anything in the world to have them out of there,” Mr. Dillion said. “They had all those newscasts on TV … and I knew that we had time. But normally, they’re outside looking too. I didn’t see any movement over there at all.”

Gov. Mike Beebe, standing on the slab where the Cherrys’ home once stood a day after the tornado, said the family stayed behind to care for their horses just before the storm hit. The fate of the horses was not known.

Mr. Dillion put his arm around one of Mrs. Cherry’s sons, offering to do anything.

All he could think was, what if?

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