Huddled in the downstairs closet with his elderly parents, Mark Ausbrooks looked up and saw the sky where the roof used to be.
When he pushed back a tree limb and shoved open the door, he had a clear view of Interstate 40 because the back wall was gone.
The ruination around him was so complete that Ausbrooks, 50, could scarcely believe they had survived the tornadoes that killed 14 people in his Arkansas hometown of Mayflower and neighboring Vilonia.
"We didn't have a scratch on us," the airline worker told NBC News on Monday after a long night of sifting through the wreckage of the house his parents had lived in since 1952.
"If you saw where we were in the house, there is no way we should have walked out of there."
Courtesy Mark Ausbrooks
Mark Ausbrooks took this picture of the destruction he encountered when he and his parents emerged from a closet in their home in Mayflower, Ark.
Ausbrooks was staying with his dad Bill, 82, and mom Virginia, 79, when the tornado warnings began blaring Sunday evening.
He and his father went outside and stood under the carport to get some idea of where the twisters were headed while his mother screamed hysterically, "Get in the house!"
"The sky turned the weirdest color of gray I'd ever seen," Ausbrooks said. "You always hear how still it gets, and there was not a leaf moving."
His sister owns a hardware store across the street, and a bolt of lightning came crashing down near it. Then they heard a crack in their own backyard.
The two men headed inside to hear an announcer on TV saying everyone in Mayflower should take cover. Then came "that roar that everyone talks about," he said.
Ausbrook bounded up the steps to the kitchen and grabbed a flashlight from the cabinet and then dashed into the bedroom to get a half-dozen pillows to protect their heads
By the time he returned to the den, the power had gone out. The family gathered close in a closet that used to hold the washer and dryer.
Bill, who has difficulty moving around, sat on a hope chest. On the floor, his son wrapped one arm around his dad's knees and the other around Virginia, who had a stroke last year.
"I was saying the Lord's Prayer and my mother was saying over and over, 'Please! Please! Lord save us!'" the son recalled, his voice cracking.
"At about that time you could hear stuff hitting the house and you heard a loud whoosh and my dad said, 'There goes the roof.'
"All of a sudden, I felt rain and I looked up and I could see the sky. The roof of the whole house was completely gone."
One of the huge trees on the property had fallen into the den. "It missed the closet we were in by just feet," Ausbrook said.
Its limbs were blocking the closet door, but he was eventually able to force it open.
"I looked out and there's a hole in the back wall and I could see the interstate. It looked like a kid playing with Hot Wheels, just cars everywhere and people running up and down," he said.
The Ausbrookses couldn't get out and the people they called to were afraid the structure was too unstable to enter. They finally got through to 911 and three firefighters climbed in and rescued them.
That's when Ausbrooks got a better look at what had happened to his childhood home and the community where he grew up.
"Just utter destruction," he said. "It looked like someone had walked around randomly snapping all the trees."
There was an RV in the ditch across from the house. "We were like, 'Where the heck did that come from?'" he said.
Then he realized the recreational vehicle had been carried from the RV dealership clear across the interstate. "There were RVs everywhere," he said.
His sister's hardware store was damaged but can be repaired. The millworks she owns next to the house was obliterated.
"It looks like a giant came along and stepped on it," he said.
Relatives arrived to help. Bill and Virginia went to a daughter's house, and Mark Ausbrooks and other family members worked through the night to see what they could recover from the debris.
They put anything of value in the living room and covered it with a tarp, and grabbed as many photographs and other mementos as they could carry.
Mark was particularly worried about his father's rocking chair, "which has been in the family forever." They cut through some trees and found it, miraculously unscathed — just like him and his parents.
Looking at the metal posts that hold up the porch, now grotesquely curled by the force of the funnel, he wondered how he and his parents could have been spared the violent death visited on others who were not as lucky.
"The Lord was looking out for us, I guess," he said.
First published April 28 2014, 11:59 AM