Wedding day joy turns to grief after guest dies in Van Zandt County tornado


It was a joyful day that ended up being a day of sorrow.

Friends and family spent the day preparing for a wedding that was to take place Saturday evening outside of a family home on Van Zandt County Road 2301, southwest of Canton.

Several dozen people were on the grounds, including a few people who had gone into a detached garage about 100 yards from the main home to check out some race cars being worked on.

Reba Billingsley, a family friend, said she was arranging roses on the wedding cake when she was summoned to the home to take photos of the bridal party getting ready for the ceremony.

“I think I got two pictures of the bride and a couple pictures of the bridal party getting ready, and they said ‘Boy the wind is picking up,’“ she said. “And we looked and a tree came flying by the window.”

The homeowner, she said, builds storm shelters for a living, so the home had a large, bunker-like storm shelter.

“Everyone just started yelling ‘Get into the bunker!’” she said. “We had no warning. They say ‘it sounds like a train,’ but it didn’t. The wind started blowing and that was it.”

The group didn’t make it to the bunker in time, and she said they were forced to take shelter in an interior hallway.

Much of what happened after that moment is a blur for Billingsley, and she pauses often while telling her story. She speaks about trying to get herself and others to safety and of everyone frantically trying to find the children who had been playing nearby just moments before.

“As we were running, the roof and the walls were coming off,” Billingsley said, indicating with her hands how the walls were bowing outward. “The house was just like Lego blocks being thrown up.”

A friend, in a moment of panic, stopped to try to save the wedding cake.

“We told her to let the wind have the cake,” Billingsley said. “Let the wind have the cake and leave the people alone.”

As they rushed into the hallway amid flying debris, Billingsley said she heard a small voice.

“I heard a kid hollering ‘Mama!’ so I went back into the hall and grabbed the child and tried to get back into the hall. I kept feeling stuff hit my back and my legs,” Billingsley said. “The bride was hollering for her son, and I felt a tug and a voice said ‘it’s me’ and come to find out it was her son that I had a hold of.”

When it grew quiet, Billingsley said she thought it was over. It wasn’t.

“As we were climbing over debris, they were yelling at us to take shelter because there was another one,” Billingsley said.

This time, however, they made it into the crowded bunker. In between warnings, people were leaving the bunker to try to find others, but she said as soon as someone would leave, they would have to come back because there was another warning. This went on for more than two hours.

On everyone’s mind were the people in the garage.

“We were more worried about the people down in the barn area, where all the vehicles were, because it had just crumbled,” Billingsley said.

A man in that barn was killed when a race car up on a lift fell and crushed him, according to Ronnie Daniell, Van Zandt County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 2.

The identity of the man who was killed has not been released, and Billingsley declined to identify him, saying only that, “he was a very important part” of the wedding day.

“To know that someone got hurt that bad, and it’s a friend of yours, it’s just unbelievable,” Billingsley said, breaking down in tears.

A couple of others who were in the garage were under vehicles but managed to get out, Billingsley said.

The injuries were numerous. Billingsley speaks of a person with a pool table thrown on top of him, of a man whose foot was amputated, of a cut on the bride’s leg.

A woman holding onto a child had her cellphone sucked out of her hand into the air.

Billingsley said her best friend, who is pregnant, was hit in the back by a vehicle and is doing OK but remains in the hospital under observation. She speaks of people with broken shoulders, broken ribs, broken collar bones and fractured eye sockets.

“Everyone was cut up, banged up or bruised up, or worse. But to only have one fatality out of it …” and she stopped.

Billingsley said it was a day she will never forget.

“It’s like when the wind blows now you’re looking around and watching,” Billingsley said. “Just to see if it’s going to pick up, or if the clouds are going to get dark, or if it’s going to get worse.”

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