By Joel Phelps
As Arkadelphia pastor Greg Lathem delivered a prayer to a group gathered at Ruggles-Wilcox Funeral Home, just a block away the tower clock at the Clark County Courthouse rang six times. What in reality was a routine chime — it was 6 o’clock on a Tuesday evening — was also a chilling coincidence, as Lathem’s prayer was part of an event remembering the March 1, 1997, tornado that claimed six lives in its destructive path through Arkadelphia, leveling homes and businesses and would leave its mark as a pivotal moment in Arkadelphia history.
Twenty-five years ago, Ruggles-Wilcox was near ground zero of the F-4 twister, so it was only fitting to commemorate the quarter-century anniversary there. A couple dozen residents — some who were there, some who weren’t on that fateful day — sauntered into the chapel for the memorial. Following a welcome from Ruggles-Wilcox owner Jeff Smith, Dr. Lewis Shepherd delivered an invocation. Clark County Judge Troy Tucker and Arkadelphia Mayor Scott Byrd read a joint proclamation marking March 1 as Tornado 1997 Remembrance Day.
Tucker, who was sheriff at the time, announced the launch of a countywide rave alert system — similar to what is used at both Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist universities — to notify residents of severe weather alerts or other public safety concerns. Meanwhile, at the Clark County Historical Museum, the doors remained open much later than normal for the opening of an exhibit displaying photographs from the aftermath and rebuilding efforts. That exhibit continues through May and is free to the public.
Arkadelphia City Manager Gary Brinkley provided an update on the city’s growth. One thing the tornado taught city leaders was that it needed building codes, planning and enforcement of city codes (the city soon adopted the Southern Standard Building Code, which had not been updated since 1973). New materials, methods and technologies were put into place to save lives and property. Afterward, the damaged mobile home park became single-family dwellings; construction of a new U.S. Post Office, Town Hall and Ruggles-Wilcox anchored the southeastern portion of the city; downtown received a facelift with a four-phase project that added trees, sidewalks, traffic control devices and made it more pedestrian-friendly.
And “there’s still more to come,” Brinkley added, noting the 10th Street expansion will make improvements on the western side of downtown.
“The tornado was costly to Arkadelphia,” Brinkley said, “but we used the event not as a stopping point in our history but as a reset. We made it better today than it was then, and it will be better tomorrow than it is today, which is the Arkadelphian way.”
The crowd then filed outside the funeral home for a candlelight vigil, with words from Dr. Rebecca Jones. As Jones read the names of the six who died, a bell chimed for each name called. A balloon release followed to remember those six.
Ricky Arnold, retired Arkadelphia fire chief, was a firefighter on duty that evening. He recounted that firefighters lengthened their shifts from 24 hours to 36 hours to respond to emergencies and fires that frequently sprouted in the aftermath. With the town in shambles, Arnold said one of the biggest challenges was keeping your bearings. “At night you’d be lost,” he said.
Former sheriff David Turner was a deputy at the time — the only one on duty, as the sheriff’s office was between shifts when the tornado touched down. He was first on scene at the Interstate 30 wreck that claimed one of the six lives. He was later dispatched to check on Honky’s Truck Stop in Gum Springs, but when he got there, the business was nowhere to be seen.
A generation ago at this very site, the funeral home (then Murry-Ruggles) sustained major damage. Just a block to the west, accountant Andy Berry witnessed a scene that would forever change his life that fateful Saturday afternoon — his office clerk was among the six who lost their life. Despite the span of time that has passed, an emotional Berry told The Arkadelphian that “it feels like it just happened. You try not to dwell on it, because if you dwell on it you’ll go crazy.”