LITTLE ROCK, ARK.
Larry Kingrey set his chainsaw down for a moment, wiped the sweat from his brow and reflected on the experience of serving others in their time of need.
He has helped others recover from natural disasters three different times.
“I’ve been all over Arkansas when there’s been a need,” said Brother Kingrey, a member of the Benton Ward, Little Rock Arkansas Stake.
This time, the need struck very close indeed for Brother Kingrey.
On April 27 and 28, a string of tornadoes tore through the south-central United States. The cities of Velonia and Mayflower, north of Little Rock, were among the hardest hit.
Three homes belonging to Church members in the Parkwood Meadows subdivision of Vilonia were impacted:
Brother Kingrey’s son and daughter-in-law, Brett and Leslie Kingrey, and their two children, members of the Cabot Ward, lost their home.
Daniel Wassom Jr. died protecting his 5-year-old daughter, Lorelai, as their home was destroyed. His wife, Suzanne, and their 7-year-old daughter, Sydney, were injured. They are members of the Conway 2nd Ward.
Also impacted was the home of Dustin and Bryn Briscoe and their children Carter, 3, and Cate, 1. Sister Briscoe is a member of the Cabot Ward.
Larry Kingrey in many ways epitomizes Latter-day Saints in this area who are helping loved ones and friends, receiving help themselves, reaching out to others in the community and expressing gratitude and devotion to a loving God who has blessed them in their time of need.
“I helped my son first,” he said. “I went up there [to Vilonia] after we could get in and helped him clear away the debris that was left over. Then I started going around and helping other people.”
Brother Kingrey was one of an estimated 1,000 Church members in the four Arkansas stakes of Little Rock, North Little Rock, Searcy and Fort Smith who gathered at Vilonia and Mayflower on Saturday, May 3, the weekend following the storm, to help clear away rubble and recover lost treasures. Most were clad in the yellow “Helping Hands” T-shirts that have become the trademark of Latter-day Saints who help in such situations.
The next Saturday, May 10, Church members went to Ferndale, a rural community west of Little Rock, where houses and buildings were not as damaged, but where the storms had felled trees that needed to be cut up and piled in preparation to be cleared away from property.
In these efforts, Latter-day Saints have joined innumerable others in the community from churches and other groups in a fellowship of service coordinated by local authorities.
“Your group is awesome!” exclaimed Allen Hubbard of the Palaski County Fire Department to a Church member on the day that the fallen trees were being cleared.
Beyond these more visible efforts, Church members are finding other ways to help. Renee Carr, Searcy Arkansas Stake director of public affairs, told of stake members tying and finishing quilts to comfort tornado victims while Primary children assembled portable office kits, an item that can be useful to displaced home owners as they organize and make lists in trying to put their lives back together.
Disaster recovery efforts “are very fluid; the needs kind of change from day to day,” said President Corey T. Moline of the North Little Rock Arkansas Stake presidency. Speaking May 11 in the priesthood meeting opening exercises of the Conway 2nd Ward, he encouraged members to not wait for official work parties to be organized by the stakes, but to get involved themselves as individuals and families in local recovery efforts. He suggested they work with groups such as Team Rubicon, an organization of military veterans who volunteer their skills to provide disaster relief. “Please continue to look for ways to help,” he said.
Many are doing that.
Jason Rowland of the Searcy Ward, owner of Rowland Tree Service, has spent many days contributing his expertise, labor and use of his front-end loader and other heavy equipment in removing trees and rubble that pose hazards in the tornado-impacted areas.
Missionaries in the Arkansas Little Rock Mission have pinned their name badges on the yellow T-shirts they have donned to be part of the effort. In this, they follow the example of their mission president, Steven M. Petersen, who actually spilled blood in the process. Using a welding torch to cut a metal beam from the rubble of a house, he received a blow to the head that required stitches, as the end of the severed beam sprang back and struck him, said George Wing, North Little Rock director of public affairs.
Among Latter-day Saints giving aid to others are those who have been victims themselves.
Brett Kingrey continues to function in his calling as a high councilor in the Searcy stake, even as he copes with the loss of his home.
Similarly, on May 11 in the sacrament meeting of the Cabot Ward, Daniel Wassom Sr., whose son died heroically while protecting his daughter from the tornado, was administering at the sacrament table with some of his Melchizedek Priesthood brethren.
Brother Kingrey said serving others helps him when he gets “tired of thinking about all this.”
“Two days after the storm,” he said, “a member of the Conway Ward, Joe Rogers, who roofs for a living, and I saw a Facebook request from some fellow that needed his roof repaired. I got sick of digging through the rubble of my house, so we went out and tarped his house. It was an hour job.
“So what Leslie and I have both learned to do, whenever things start feeling overwhelming, is we just forget ourselves and we try to spread that same love and service that we’ve felt. It brings a lot of joy into our lives to be able to do that. And the Lord has opened up so many doors for us and everyone else through this to make the process of recovery more, just easier.”
Sister Kingrey gives a gripping account of the harrowing experience she, her children, and their neighbors, the Wassoms, endured.
Brother Kingrey, whose profession is construction, was away on business. Sister Kingrey was at home with their two children and her father, Louie Irving, 73, who was staying with them after having had open-heart surgery.
“When the tornado hit the house, it threw my 5-year-old son, Austin, in one direction, and it threw my father-in-law the other direction,” Brother Kingrey said. Sister Kingrey was holding 14-month-old EllaGrace.
“I knew I had to hold Gracie tight to protect her,” Sister Kingrey said. “But I was waiting to die. I thought to myself, ‘This is not the way that I want to go. But if it’s my turn, I just hope that it will be quick.’ And Heavenly Father pushed us into some carpet, and I threw it over me, and we were protected for the rest of the tornado.”
After the storm passed, she screamed for Austin, fearing he had been blown into the cattle field behind the house.
“But he stood up, and I ran to him, and I tried to put my arms around him, but he didn’t want me to touch him because he was so badly hurt. He looked down and said, ‘There’s Papa Louie.’ ”
She was amazed that her father, in his frail condition, had survived.
“And then I saw my neighbor stand up with both of her girls on either side of her. And it just didn’t click that it was her. I just thought to myself, ‘It can’t be.’ And she hollered for me. She said, ‘Leslie!’ And I said, ‘Oh Suzanne!’ And I ran for her. And she told me, ‘Dan is gone.’ ”
Sister Kingrey thought that meant Brother Wassom was lost, but she soon came to realize Sister Wassom meant that he had died.
Borrowing a cell phone from someone, she notified Brother Kingrey that they were OK but that the neighborhood was gone.
“But they really weren’t OK,” Brother Kingrey said.
Austin and his grandfather were both severely injured. “There wasn’t a square inch of Austin’s back that wasn’t bruised, cut, scratched or scraped,” Sister Kingrey said. “He looked pretty bad. He had a big gash on his head. He had a cut on his head. He had a big gash on his face that went all the way through the cartilage of his ear. And he had a big gash on his back, so he had to have staples in his head and stitches in his ear.”
“We gave him a priesthood blessing,” Brother Kingrey said. “The blessing said he would heal quickly, and he has healed extremely fast.”
As Suzanne Wassom and her daughters were being treated, 5-year-old Lorelai kept telling people at the hospital, “Our house exploded; my daddy’s a hero; my daddy saved me,” said Pam Wassom, mother of Daniel Wassom Jr. and wife of Daniel Wassom Sr.
Indeed he was, as he shielded her with his own body, giving his life in the act.
“But in my book, he and Suzanne are both heroes,” Sister Wassom said. “She got those girls out of the debris and then went back in to find Bud. Even though she had a bad head injury, she helped a neighbor kid and his family.”
To his parents and large extended family, Dan Wassom Jr., whom they called Bud, was already a hero in the way he lived his life.
A master sergeant in the Arkansas Air National Guard for over 12 years, “he loved every minute of [life],” said his father.
“He loved those girls to pieces,” Brother Wassom Sr. said. “He took them to Church all the time. Sometimes he’d go pull them out of nursery just to hang out with them, he wanted to be with them that much. He loved being a dad, loved taking care of those girls. And now, I get the – not the responsibility, but the pleasure – of following in his footsteps and try to take up where he left off with those girls.”
Pam Wassom said she also sees heroism in the act of three men from the ward who came and sat with her husband as he waited for the coroner to come take the body of his son.
One of the men was James House, a member of the Cabot Ward bishopric. Sister Wassom said a blanket that was used to cover the body of her son was a special one purchased for him at age 6 or 7 when the family was stationed in Korea in the military. Brother House recognized the blanket was special, so he took it home, washed it and gave it back to the family.
“He said, ‘I don’t know why, but I just knew it was important.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is very important.’ I can’t tell you how appreciative I was of Brother House doing that.”