(AP) — Trey and Meghan Rackley and their three daughters sought shelter in a windowless bathroom in their southeast Missouri home as storms raged across the middle of the country. To prove they were in their “safe space” with the storm approaching Friday evening, the girls’ mom texted her Aunt Sandy a photo of the three in and next to the bathtub — all of them smiling, 9-year-old Annistyn holding her favorite doll.
Fifteen minutes later, Sandra Hooker said, a tornado splintered the home, carrying the family members dozens of yards through the air into a field where first responders found them in mud. Annistyn, a third-grader who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, died, one of dozens killed in five states.
The other family members were injured, but survived. Seven-year-old Avalinn told doctors she flew around “in the tornado,” Hooker said.
Hooker called Annistyn Rackley a “special angel,” recalling the girl as outgoing and energetic despite a rare liver condition that required regular doctor’s visits. Hooker teaches gifted students at the same elementary school where Meghan Rackley teaches kindergarten in Caruthersville, which is nestled next to the Mississippi River in what’s known as Missouri’s Bootheel region.
Hooker’s account of what happened to the Rackleys came from talking to law enforcement and first responders who were at the scene after the tornado and found family members in the field. Hooker also said she talked to the girl’s father.
“Their house is splintered,” she told The Associated Press during a telephone interview. “There’s debris strewn forever out in the field, and so they were sucked up into the tornado.”
Tornadoes also roared through both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the St. Louis area, as well as the Memphis, Tennessee, area and parts of Arkansas and Illinois. A candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, and an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, were hit.
West of St. Louis, 84-year-old Ollie Borgmann, described as a sweet and “typical grandmother,” died at a hospital after a tornado on Friday blew the Defiance, Missouri, home she shared with her 84-year-old husband, Vernon, off its foundation.
In Pemiscot County in southeastern Missouri, bordering Arkansas and Kentucky, where the Rackleys live, the sheriff’s office did not immediately return telephone messages Monday seeking comment about the storm that destroyed the Rackleys’ home. Gov. Mike Parson’s office said that about 30,000 Missouri residents initially were without power.
Hooker said that Annistyn Rackley’s family hadn’t yet unpacked from their move Dec. 4 from Caruthersville to their new home along Highway J, just west of the city. She said she talked to the girl’s mother, Meghan Rackley, on Friday afternoon about the possibility of bad storms.
Hooker is the sister of Meghan Rackley’s grandmother, and she said she and Annistyn, or Anni, grew close over the past four years. Annistyn also attended the same elementary school where her mom and Hooker teach.
Hooker said Annistyn’s parents learned when she was 2 months old that she had a rare liver disorder in which bile ducts don’t develop properly, sometimes making it hard to fight off illness. She said she bonded with Annistyn during doctor’s visits and blood draws and said the girl liked to draw with chalk on the cement of her carport.
But she said Annistyn still was full of energy and delighted in donning outfits and makeup for cheer competitions and learning new dances from TikTok. She did cartwheels and splits in front of Hooker.
“I would just gasp because she could do the splits all the time, and she would just laugh,” Hooker said. “She loved dancing.”
Her father, Trey Rackley, a 37-year-old trucking company dispatcher, suffered cuts and bruises and remains sore and sometimes in shock, Hooker said. But he and the youngest daughter, 3-year-old Alanna — Little Lani — are no longer hospitalized.
Hooker said Meghan Rackley’s injuries included broken bones, a brain injury and a large cut, and she’s asking people to pray for the 32-year-old mother. The middle child, Avalinn, or Ava, had broken vertebrae in her back and was expected to undergo surgery Wednesday, Hooker said.
After Ava reached a hospital in Memphis, Hooker said, she learned from family there that the young girl had told doctors and nurses, “I was flying around in the tornado and I prayed to Jesus to take care of me, and he spit me out — and the tornado spit me out into the mud.”
Hooker said after a prayer vigil Sunday, searchers in the field near the Rackleys’ house found the doll that Annistyn was holding in the photo. Hooker said it was Annistyn’s favorite, and she called it Baby MawMaw.
“They brought Baby MawMaw to me, and I’m cleaning her up so that Ava can have Baby MawMaw,” she said.