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Arkansas Tornado Victims Mourned

January 25, 1999

BEEBE, Ark. (AP) _ The same hands that only days before had cradled 2-month-old Kirk McAfee now were clasped in prayer as Mike Thomas led the infant’s graveside service.

``It wasn’t but just a little while ago I held him at the church, but God took him back,″ said Thomas, pastor of the 16 Section Union Church.

Thomas spoke Sunday against a backdrop of daisies, yellow carnations and the stark landscape of an Arkansas winter. The infant, who was blown out of his grandmother’s home when a tornado hit Thursday, was among eight to die in Arkansas and Tennessee during the furious storms.

Rick McKay dug the little boy’s grave with a backhoe.

``You hate to see all these people you haven’t seen in such a long time, under these circumstances,″ McKay said as roughly 400 mourners gathered under bright sunshine.

In Searcy, up to 700 people showed up for the funeral of Wanda Wilson, 66, who was killed when her mobile home was knocked over by a tornado. Three funerals were scheduled for today, and arrangements for two others were pending.

Residents, meanwhile, struggled to clean up their ravaged neighborhoods.

In Little Rock, Terry Wheeler stood on the roof of her apartment complex while her 2-year-old son played with a rooftop television antenna. No one was in danger of falling _ the roof was on the ground.

``To see the houses is just a nightmare, but to see the people climb out of them whole and hearty is such a blessing,″ said Robin Loucks, another Little Rock resident, who has lived in the city for 33 years.

In Beebe, Kelton Keathley recalled surviving by huddling in a bathtub with his daughter, her fiance, a friend, his 90-year-old grandmother ``and a little old yellow dog.″

Winds estimated at 200 mph ripped the walls from the house.

``We all raised up and walked off,″ Keathley said. ``The Lord had to be looking after us for us to live through that because it’s not supposed to happen. We should have been dead.″

In Clarksville, Tenn., the town’s 19th century church was among the hardest hit buildings in town _ its sanctuary destroyed and massive twin spires ripped nearly in half.

``Mom, this is sad because the church fell down,″ 5-year-old Conner Watts wrote _ with his mother’s help _ on an index card and read aloud during Sunday service.

The Rev. Doug Norfleet kissed the boy on the cheek and told him and the hundreds of church members: ``We’re gonna rebuild it.″

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