As a tornado demolished Master Sgt. Dan Wassom’s house, he and his wife, Suzanne, tried to protect their 5- and 7-year-old daughters by using their own bodies as shields. It worked. Their children survived. But one of the parents didn’t make it.
With winds reaching nearly 200 mph, the devastating EF-4 tornado smashed into Vilonia, Arkansas, April 27, killing 16 people. The twister demolished 50 of the 56 homes in the Wassoms’ subdivision, as well as nearly half the businesses in the town of 3,800. Thirty-one-year-old Daniel Ray Wassom II, affectionately known as “Bud” to his family and close friends, died while shielding his 5-year-old daughter, Lorelai.
Bud had been a C-130 Hercules loadmaster evaluator with the Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. In joining the Air Force as a patriotic calling shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he had followed in his dad’s footsteps. The senior Dan Wassom had been a C-130 maintenance crew chief at Little Rock before retiring from active duty. He still works at the base as a civilian in the 19th Maintenance Group, just minutes from his son’s unit.
Dan Sr. and his wife, Pam, reside in Cabot, Arkansas, in the home where Bud grew up. They live only 20 minutes from where their son’s 2,300-square-foot home used to stand before being reduced to a pile of rubble.
“We were supposed to be there that night … at his house,” Dan Sr. said. “Maybe …” His voice trailed off, and he looked down at the cement floor in the garage where he and Bud used to work on cars together.
Almost on a daily basis, as their minds wander to that terrible night, he and Pam run through the improbable scenarios — the ones where they somehow save their only son. They know they could not have done much, had they been there in the midst of a monster storm that tossed cars and refrigerators as if they were pebbles, but they beat themselves up anyway, their brains playing a cruel game of coulda, woulda, shoulda on a seemingly endless loop.
Maybe they coulda talked their son and his family into seeking refuge at a nearby storm shelter. Maybe they woulda directed his family to a safer location in the house or used their own bodies as human shields. Maybe they shoulda helped their son procure that safe room he’d been talking about building in his garage but had put off for other priorities.
“We wish it had been either one of us (who died),” said Pam, who together with Dan Sr. raised six children (four biological, as well as a nephew and niece). “He still had those babies to take care of.”
And parenting his girls — Lorelai and Sydney — had been Bud’s passion.
“He was the best daddy I’d ever seen,” Pam said, as she stood in the kitchen where she had prepared her son’s favorite meals and watched him make his young daughters laugh with silly stories. “He was involved in every aspect of those girls’ lives.”
From changing diapers and giving baths when they were infants, to riding bikes and taking them fishing when they were older, Bud enjoyed his daughters as much as they enjoyed him. He was even there holding them when they got their ears pierced, Pam said.
“He took to parenthood as naturally as breathing air,” she said. “And he loved his wife with all his heart.”
So while his death came as a shock to his family and friends, the way he died – protecting his family – didn’t surprise anyone.
On the night of the tornado, at 7:20 p.m., Suzanne posted a picture on Facebook of their family huddled in the hallway to wait out the storm. They had retreated to where they’d deduced was the safest area of their home as sirens blared, warning them of the incoming threat.
She would later tell Dan and Pam that Bud had been calm, cool and collected even as it became apparent the deafening twister had begun consuming their home. He used his 6-foot-2 frame to form a semi-cocoon over Lorelai, while Suzanne hovered over Sydney.
“The girls told me they ‘could hear Mommy’s dishes breaking’ and the wind roaring,” Pam said.
Then they told her the house “exploded.”
Powerful winds tossed the family of four around like feathers in front of a box fan. When the twister finally released them from its clutches, they had become separated from each other, according to Dan Sr.
Bleeding from a long gash in the back of her head, Suzanne, who had landed not far from where they had huddled in the hallway, started searching for the girls. Dazed and confused and still a bit woozy from the blow to her head, it took her a moment to gather herself and spot Sydney just a few short steps away. The 7-year-old miraculously had been the least injured family member, sustaining only minor scrapes and bruises.
With her eldest daughter in tow, Suzanne began searching the house of horrors for Lorelai and Bud. She hollered for them, but didn’t hear an answer. Then, out of the corner of her eye, the worried mother noticed some carpet moving. She yanked the carpet back and found Lorelai underneath, Dan Sr. said. The youngest of the Wassom clan had sustained serious injuries to her right shoulder and left foot (though they wouldn’t discover that until later).
It had started to rain, so Suzanne decided she better get the girls under some shelter. She spotted a house across the street that had a garage still partially intact, so, bare-footed, the trio made their way through shattered glass and debris toward the only apparent refuge from the downpour.
“Once she had the girls out of the rain, she told them to stay there while she went to look for Daddy,” Dan Sr. said.
When she finally found her husband of 10 years by following the ringing of his cell phone, she knew he had died. She used the phone to call for help.
“She said she then caressed Bud’s face and told him that she loved him,” Dan Sr. said. “About that time the wind had picked up again, and the girls started screaming.”
So Suzanne did what she had to do, what Bud would have wanted her to do. She ran to her terrified daughters to comfort them and get them to safety.
When her phone rang the night of the twister, Pam had been surprised to hear the voice of Teresa Cole, Suzanne’s sister, who lives in Washington.
“She called me at exactly 8:09 p.m.,” Pam said, taking a deep breath and biting her lower lip. “She told me that the tornado had hit Bud’s house. She said, ‘Suzanne and the girls are hurt … and Bud’s dead.’”
Dan Sr., who had just pulled out of the driveway to pick up their niece from a church function, had never heard his wife of 36 years so distraught.
“She’s screaming into the phone … completely hysterical,” he said. “I couldn’t make out a word she was saying.”
Pam attempted to tell her husband at least a half dozen times.
He couldn’t decipher her frantic words, “but I knew it was something bad,” Dan Sr. said. “So I turned the car around and headed home as fast as I could.”
As he pulled into his driveway, Pam jumped into the car.
“When I finally understood what she had been trying to tell me, we raced toward Bud’s house,” he said. “Then you just start praying that it’s a mistake, it’s not true.”
Dan Sr. and Pam weaved their way as close to their son’s street as possible. He let Pam out while he searched for a place to park.
“I started running toward their house,” Pam said. “But then I heard Suzanne call out to me.”
In the dark, she said she would have run right past Suzanne and the girls if her daughter-in-law hadn’t stopped her.
“First responders were bandaging Suzanne’s head, which eventually needed 14 staples,” Pam said. “Lorelai had a chunk out of her right shoulder and pieces of wood still sticking out of it. Sydney fared best of all with only minor cuts.”
As she held her granddaughters, Pam’s thoughts drifted to her son.
After Dan Sr. had ensured Suzanne and his granddaughters were in good hands with Grandma and the first responders, he headed toward Bud’s house.
His heart sank as he saw his son’s once meticulously landscaped and decorated home ruined.
He entered the house in total darkness. In his haste to reach his son, he was unprepared.
He did not have a flashlight.
“I couldn’t see a thing, so I started hollering for him, ‘Buddy! Buddy! It’s Dad. Answer me if you can.’”
After several minutes of stumbling over debris and no luck in his desperate search for his son, some people making their way through the neighborhood stopped to offer assistance. One of them lent Dan Sr. his cell phone to use as a makeshift flashlight.
“Once I had the light it took me less than a minute to find him,” said Dan Sr., who noted it was about 8:40 p.m.
A first responder, who had earlier been directed to Bud by Suzanne, had placed a blanket over Bud’s body.
“I pulled the blanket back and saw his face,” Dan Sr. said. “His eyes were closed as if he was asleep. He looked at peace.”
Dan Sr. said his Air Force self-aid and buddy care training automatically kicked in and kept him calm and focused.
“I grabbed his wrist and checked his vital signs. His wrist was already cold. No pulse. I checked under his arm. Nothing. Then I checked the arteries in his neck. Not a thing,” he said, slowly shaking his head.
As Dan Sr. assessed his son’s injuries, he found he had suffered two fatal blows.
“A heavy structural beam had struck the back of his neck, opening a large wound, and a one-by-four had impaled his chest,” he said. “When I saw that, I knew there was no hope.”
Stoically, the father, who said he was still in shock, grabbed a cushion and placed it under his son’s head.
He stood up slowly, stared at his boy and silently asked God, “Why did this have to happen to my son?”
Suzanne, bloodied from the serious head wound and numerous cuts and scrapes on her arms, appeared ready to faint.
“I think the only reason she hadn’t passed out to this point is she knew she had to be strong for her kids to ensure they were safe,” said Dan Sr., who added that Suzanne had also helped get a neighbor’s 5-year-old boy to safety. “She was operating in survival mode — on a mother’s instinct to protect her children.”
But with the children safe with Grandma and first responders, the weary mother started to drift off. Fearing she had a concussion, they tried to keep her awake. Kelli Jackson, Suzanne’s cousin, had arrived on the scene shortly after Dan Sr. and Pam. Since no ambulances appeared to be on the way, Pam and Kelli decided to transport her daughter-in-law and grandchildren to the emergency room in nearby Conway, Arkansas.
Dan Sr., who had confirmed their worst fears and let Pam know their son was indeed dead, stayed behind to wait for the medical examiner.
In the car with the dome light on, Pam said Sydney suddenly screamed, “Lorelai, your toe!” Lorelai looked at her foot and shrieked, “My toe’s cut off! My toe’s cut off!”
“Part of her left middle toe had been severed and was hanging just by the skin,” Pam said, wincing. “None of us had noticed it in the dark. I started to wrap a sock on her foot to hold the toe in place when a first responder gave us some bandages.”
They arrived at the hospital in Conway, where Suzanne’s parents met them and stayed with their daughter as doctors treated her injuries. Dan Sr. met them later and took Sydney home with him. Pam accompanied Lorelai, who was taken by ambulance to Arkansas Children’s Hospital for surgery on her shoulder and toe. But the surgeon wasn’t able to save Lorelai’s toe.
In the triage room, Lorelai had already forgotten about her wounds. Pam said, “She was telling anyone who would listen,‘My house exploded, and my daddy saved me.’”
Dan Sr. and Pam miss the way things were.
“Bud was one of those kids who would always give me a hug and kiss whenever we said hello or goodbye,” Pam said, smiling at the thought. “Even in high school, when it’s not cool to give your mom a kiss, that never bothered him. He always showed me great affection. I miss that.”
Dan Sr. misses sharing their passion for cars — especially Ford model vehicles.
“We built this hot rod together,” he said, running his hand across the fender of a pimped out 1934 Ford three-window coupe. “It was parked in his garage when the storm hit and was one of the few things to survive.”
Dan Sr. fired up the classic car, which still had some damage from the twister. He pressed the gas pedal a few times as the engine roared.
“Bud loved the sound of that engine,” he said. “I miss sharing that with him.”
And both parents lament the noticeable absence of their son’s sense of humor.
With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Bud would call his dad “Ol’ Man” and “tease me that he was going to put me in a nursing home when I got older,” Dan Sr. said with a chuckle.
“He was a jokester, always pulling pranks,” Pam said. “He loved to make people laugh.”
But most of all they miss the family get-togethers and the joy that was taken from Suzanne and their granddaughters.
“They all suffered some post-traumatic stress,” said Pam, who was always eager to volunteer when it came to babysitting her granddaughters. “The girls are very sensitive when the winds pick up.”
Following the tornado, they felt safer on Little Rock AFB, where they were temporarily lodged, Pam said. Sydney, in particular, was comforted by seeing the men and women in uniforms like the ones her Daddy wore. And they didn’t like straying too far from storm shelters, of which the base has plenty.
Ultimately, Suzanne made a tough decision. She and the girls moved to Washington in late July to be closer to her sister and to give the girls a fresh start.
“You hate to admit it as a grandparent, but maybe that’s what they need right now,” Dan Sr. said. “They were terrified being in Tornado Alley. We just want what’s best for them.”
But it still doesn’t soothe a grandmother’s soul.
“We miss them terribly, hugging them and hearing their giggles,” said Pam, who also has contemplated moving from the area they’ve called home for nearly 30 years. “But we all have our crosses to bear. We miss our son. They miss their daddy.
“He was their hero, and he proved it with his last breath.”