Father and son tell of a ‘very different’ twister

84-year-old realizes he may have cheated death during killer Arkansas tornado

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
Yahoo News
How one Arkansas family survived deadly tornadoes, but lost everything
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Vilonia, Arkansas, resident Jim Purvis survives the damage after a deadly tornado that devastated the area on Sunday and destroyed the Purvis' home. (Yahoo News/Jason Sickles)

VILONIA, Ark. ­— Doctors and nurses are fussing over James Purvis, trying to stitch up gashes to his arm and above his left eye. The 84-year-old suffered the wounds a few hours earlier when a massive tornado ravaged his home.

Purvis knows he’s fortunate to be alive, and was antsy when his son, who had ridden out the storm with him, arrived at the hospital.

“He immediately wanted me to find his rosary,” said Jim Purvis, 55.

Jim tracked down his dad’s bloodstained pants and pulled a pouch from a front pocket. Inside the pouch were prayer beads and a crucifix Purvis has carried since he fought in the Korean War.

“It gives you something to lean on,” said the elder Purvis, who was still in hospital scrubs Monday afternoon. “We lost everything. The thing came through the center of the house.”

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James Purvis, 84, suffered several cuts when his roof collapsed on him during the tornado. (Jason Sickles/Yahoo …

The father and son were watching television shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday when weather conditions began to worsen. After the TV signal went out, the men began watching the skies as they had done so many times before here in tornado-prone central Arkansas.

Outside of their three-bedroom, two-bath brick house, nightfall was setting in. But looking southwest, they could see dark clouds swirling angrily.

“You could hear the roar,” the elder Purvis said.

The Purvis family has seen its share of tornadoes through the years, and barely escaped calamity when another deadly twister struck Vilonia three years ago. Sunday night, Jim Purvis said, was very different.

“It didn’t look like the stereotypical tornadoes you see on TV,” he said. “It was just a wall of crap coming at you.”

Some have estimated that Sunday’s tornado was at least a half-mile wide. It devastated Vilonia, a bedroom community of 4,100 about 35 miles north of Little Rock. In a matter of minutes, the twister crushed shopping centers, flipped cars like toys, ripped mature trees from their roots and leveled block after block of homes.

Nine people were reportedly killed on the same street, just a few blocks from where the Purvises lived. Seeing the Purvises’ home in shambles makes you wonder how they survived.

After realizing they needed to take cover, father and son headed to a hallway bathroom, but the elder Purvis almost didn’t make it.

“He stopped because he heard our greenhouse being blown away,” said Jim, shaking his head. “He missed getting smashed by the brick chimney falling by a foot and a half.”

His dad, the kind of guy who sees life as the glass being half full, acknowledged his misstep on Monday.

“Curiosity got the best of me,” said the elder Purvis, who suffered lacerations to his left arm, head, and right hand. “But I’m a hell of a lot smarter today than I was yesterday.”

He made it through the bathroom door just as the roof of the house came crashing down. Falling debris knocked him to the floor and into a 5-gallon glass jug used to store pocket change.

For a few frightening moments, Jim Purvis wasn’t sure what had happened to his dad.

“I couldn’t see where he was because of the darkness,” said the son, who was not injured. “He was covered up with 2-by-4s and everything else. The glass cut him up pretty bad.”

They were trapped in the bathroom for 30 minutes until a friend, Keith McCord, and an unidentified man came to the rescue.

“You could hear him and his son screaming for help,” McCord told Yahoo News.

McCord, the longtime owner of a nearby gas station and repair shop, escaped the tornado’s wrath by huddling in his store’s office with 14 of his workers and customers. His business was demolished, but everyone inside made it out OK.

With the twister gone, McCord grabbed a flashlight and headed down the street. The good Samaritans were able to pull the Purvises out of the house through a window.

“He’s a nice old man,” McCord said Monday.

And a lucky one, too, says Jim Purvis.

“He’s really surprised me through the years,” the son said.

In his 84 years James Purvis, a retired biology teacher and railroad worker, made it home from the Korean War, survived a head-on car crash and underwent triple-bypass surgery.

“There are two things we don’t have control over: life and death,” said James Purvis, a widower. “Everything in between is our responsibility.”

 Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).

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