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Miracle on the Square

Recounting that ill-fated day April 19, 1968, Peggy Dorsey Sherrill of the Dayton community doesn’t remember her own screams, calling for her two-year-old daughter, Tina. The handful of people around her did, they would tell her later, as well as the desperate prayers offered in a time of great tragedy.

That Friday afternoon was a typical laundry day for the Mansfield High School graduate as she and little Tina loaded baskets of clothing into her mother’s red Ford for the short drive to Greenwood. Sherrill and husband, Jerry, made their home in Witcherville.

Picking up her mother, Sylvia Dorsey, as she finished her work shift at Pink Bud Nursing Home, the trio made their way to the launderette located near the town square, just steps away from the Sebastian County Courthouse.

Ominous clouds added anxiety as the two women loaded several baskets of clothes into washers located in the center of the building.

With threatening weather warnings, discussion of leaving for a cousin’s basement on nearby Hackett Road continued while launderette manager, Willis Poole, kept watch outside the front of the building.

Suddenly Poole moved inside the structure and told the small group of patrons to get against the wall. They surrounded little Tina, with Poole encircling the group with his long arms, unwilling to let them leave.

As the plate glass windows blew into the building, Sherrill and the others felt debris fall on their bodies (though painless, she would later discover that they needed several shampooings to wear the black specks of asphalt from their scalps).

She described the signature loud roar of a train as the killer tornado swept through the Greenwood Square.

“We knew what had happened, but we were in shock,” Sherrill said.

“We stood up and looked around. The front [of the building] was gone, the back was gone. It seemed to last forever, and then it was calm and quiet.”

Rubble covered the washers. Poole warned them not to touch the machines because of damaged electrical wiring.

Poole was the only one with a serious injury. One of his arms encircling the small cluster of his customers was broken.

“He saved all of our lives, protecting us,” Sherrill remembered with gratitude.

Stepping out front, Sherrill found her mother’s car with boards splintered through the windows, driven into the seats, body totaled and inoperable, as were other vehicles and buildings tossed around them.

The courthouse and businesses on the square were destroyed. The view in any direction was one of total devastation.

With Tina in her arms, Sherrill and her mother began to walk on the street in the general direction toward Pink Bud in hope of meeting family members.

Damage was extensive, with power lines down, buildings demolished, and vehicles crumpled; the town was barely recognizable.

As they neared Pink Bud, they met Sherrill’s sister, Joanne Martin, and aunt, Delphia Cross. Harold Cross walked from the Sebastian County road shop. Family members were tearful and relieved at seeing the three approach from the downtown area. Several people were walking about in a daze, shocked by the sudden catastrophic event.

Disaster officials asked them to leave town and return the next day to retrieve belongings as the area was being secured.

Back home in Witcherville, Sherrill called husband, Jerry, who was working at the Waldron Livestock sale barn. He had not heard about the tornado, and wasn’t particularly ruffled by the incident, thinking she was exaggerating its severity. Needless to say, he knew differently when he arrived home later.

Sherrill’s dad, Earl Dorsey, was employed at Midwest Lumber in Fort Smith where he heard of the tornado. He drove his green station wagon to Greenwood, and was permitted to drive into town, probably under the assumption that he was an emergency worker.

When he arrived on the square, he spotted his wife’s red Ford, looked inside, and saw his granddaughter’s shoes. He thought she had died and began repeatedly calling out his term of endearment for her: “Scooter! Where’s Scooter?”

Relatives Doyle and Clarence Dorsey began trying to locate Earl Dorsey, knowing he left his workplace. Not finding him, they searched in Fort Smith, finally discovering him after nightfall. He was stunned, not recalling leaving Greenwood and returning to Fort Smith. The good news was finding out all of his family members had survived the tornado.

Returning to Greenwood the following day to recover her clothes, Sherrill was carrying Tina wrapped in a quilt, and was stopped by a female disaster worker who gently asked if the child was injured or dead. The stark reality began to sink in with the question.

Little Tina was so traumatized by the event that she was not to speak a word for the next day-and-a-half. She responded otherwise, but she was rendered mute by that monster in the sky.

Going about the task of attempting the retrieval of her clothes from the washers proved to be hazardous. All the lids were closed, but the clothes inside were covered with broken glass and dirt. She did get her clothing out of the machines, but still wonders how the lids came to be closed.

Now, 46 years after a spring day turned into a nightmare for so many people, Sherrill still returns to Greenwood to shop.

Though widowed, and with health challenges, Sherrill never forgets how God has blessed her with three daughters, their families, and many friends. She also remembers all those who suffered such sorrow and loss in her midst.

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