Tornado survivor regrets not knocking on neighbor's door

Monday, February 11, 2008
Rickey Leath, left, and Daniel Driver used chainsaws Sunday to cut the trees on Leath's property in Lafayette, Tenn. Leath's home was destroyed by a tornado Tuesday that also killed 13 people in rural Macon County. (Kiichiro Sato ~ Associated Press)

ATKINS, Ark. -- On Southeast Fourth Street, everyone steps outside as the 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 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 people inside shut the shelter's door that 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.

An average family

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 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.

Dana Cherry, 43, and already a grandmother of two, worked at the Pope County Conservation District. She knew through her work as flood plain manager for the county of 54,000 that disasters could sweep across the rice fields and hills at any time.

Still, she greeted agitation great and small through faith, encouraging others to pray on their troubles. She and Jimmy Cherry Jr., 40, attended services at Bible Baptist Church in Russellville, Ark., where Dana Cherry would sometimes sing hymns, hitting the high notes of the prerecorded accompany music behind her.

Jimmy Cherry, who worked as a supervisor at JW Aluminum, offered a strong father to Emmy. He would take her out to feed the animals and pile onto the couch with their dogs to watch Animal Planet.

Emmy's family members adored her as a child in love with animals, books and stargazing. She wanted to be either an astronomer or a veterinarian when she grew up.

Parents and child were tight-knit. "If you saw one of them, you saw all of them," said Scotty Manning, Dana Cherry's sister.

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

Taking shelter

The wind roared as James 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," James Dillion said.

Ann Dillion, 62, began to feel her heart beat strangely and felt pain in her chest as she wept. It would turn out to be the first sign of a major heart attack.

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 Dana and Jimmy Cherry's bodies in 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," James 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."

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