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Family learns no place is safe from nature’s fury

Despite planting her home in a seemingly sheltered Arkansas valley, a 36-year-old letter carrier and mother of four was one of three Van Buren County residents killed in a monster storm Tuesday. 
Image: Debris is scattered around a home near Clinton, Arkansas.
Debris is scattered around a home near Clinton, Ark., on Wednesday after tornadoes tore through the area the previous night.Arkansas Democrat-gazette Handou / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tonya Selken's home sat in a dip along a ridge on Dog Mountain, where they had a sweeping view of rolling horse pasture and the misty Ozark foothills in the distance. But she didn't choose these two of her grandfather's 210 acres just for the scenery.

This was one of several places the family mapped out for their protection from tornadoes. In the nearly 60 years since the family bought the place on Shady Grove road, they had seen several twisters hop over this spot and touch down harmlessly on the ridge beyond.

"She was in the house once when one went right over the top of her," said her father, Jerry Simpkins.

But on Tuesday, the family's luck ran out.

The 36-year-old letter carrier and mother of four was one of three Van Buren County residents killed in a monster storm that ground a path across the Southeast, claiming more than 50 lives in several states. Her husband Raymond, 38, and their 14-year-old daughter, Ellise, were also seriously injured.

‘Nobody understands God's will’
Standing Wednesday amid the debris field of twisted metal and pink insulation, Carmon Lagunes struggled to grasp why God would take her sister.

"That's his wrath," she said, looking toward the wreckage. "For some reason, he's not happy right now and this is. ... Nobody understands God's will. I sure as hell don't understand it.

Said Anita Goodnight, the sisters' aunt: "God didn't do it. Satan did."

Looking around the valley, where locals raise cattle and cultivate shiitake mushrooms, it is hard not to marvel at the capricious of nature. As workers cleared toppled trees and replaced snapped power poles, cows grazed lazily beside barns whose tin roofs proclaim "Jesus Saves."

Kathy Huggins was on a tractor up the road from the Selken place when she heard the sirens from the city of Clinton, about 12 miles away. She rushed down to her daughter's house and hid in the bathroom.

"It was just a stroke of luck that I heard it," she said as she walked around with a tray of turkey and cheese sandwiches for the workers. "They never heard it."

The Selkens — the couple, Ellise and her 16-year-old sister, Corina — barely had time to huddle in a hallway before the tornado reached down into what they thought was their safe haven, Huggins said.

From the scene, it appears the storm lifted the trailer, twisted it around and threw it backward up the hill. The undercarriage was at least 15 yards from where it had stood in a grove of pines.

Woman died near her dog
When Huggins made it to the site a half-hour after the storm, she found Raymond Selken and the girls crumpled amid the remains of the office and master bedroom. Corina walked away with minor bumps and scrapes, but the father — a disabled veteran — had a severe head wound, and Ellise had a broken femur.

Jerry Simpkins, and his daughter, Carmon Lagunes, look at the wreckage belonging to his other daughter Tonya Selken, in Shirley, Ark., on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008. Selken, 36 was among four people killed when storms moved through Van Buren County, and her husband and 14-year-old daughter were seriously injured, relatives said. Selken's body was found Tuesday lying beside that of her 14-year-old Labrador Henry, in the foreground.Allen G. Breed / ap

No one knew where Tonya Selken was. But as Huggins accompanied Ellis to the hospital, the girl said over and over that her mother was dead.

"No she's not," Huggins assured the girl.

"Yes, she is," Ellis replied. "I know she is."

Searchers later found Tonya Selken's body about 30 feet down the hill, beside a twisted freezer. The body of her 14-year-old chocolate Labrador, Henry, lay beside her.

Loss sinks in
Raymond Selken and Ellise were taken to Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock, where he was awaiting surgery for a badly fractured sinus bone, Huggins said. Doctors expected to set the girl's broken leg Friday, her aunt said.

On Wednesday, Lagunes and Simpkins walked the site in search of mementoes that could be salvaged. They found Tonya's prized glass rocking horse sculpture and the brown-stained ring bearer's pillow from her wedding.

They managed to round up seven of the couple's nine horses.

Miss Dixie — the paint to which Tonya fed peppermints and apples, and that was her "pride and joy" — contentedly munched grass as the family combed the wreckage. Henry's soggy, sand-choked body lay nearby.

‘There's no understanding for it’
The couple's other two children — 18-year-old Andrew and 12-year-old Donavan — were elsewhere when the storm hit. Mr. Simpkins was preparing for later in the day, when the family planned to tell Donavan his mother was gone.

"I don't know how you prepare for something like that," he said as he spat on the ground. "I'll probably let my daughter do most of the talking."

Lagunes stared across the valley as the sun began to set behind the spot where her sister had planned to build herself a little cabin. She wondered what she would do without the woman who baked her wedding cake, who'd held her hand when she gave birth to her son because her husband was too chicken to enter the operating room.

"She was my best friend," Lagunes said, a tear trickling down her cheek. "I would love to blame somebody. You can't really blame God. Because he has taken care of us for so long and so many times.

"But no, there's no reason for this. There's no understanding for it."