MARSHALL COUNTY, Ala. – Ten years ago, on April 27, 2011, 15 tornadoes hit Marshall County. One of them, an EF-4 tornado, moved into the community of Ruth, northwest of Arab, where it killed five people, all members of the same family.
Nine people sheltered in Phillip and Ann Hallmark’s home on Frontier Road that day. Four survived, including, their granddaughter, Ari Hallmark.
At the time, Ari was only 6 years old. She says before the tornadoes ripped through the south on April 27, she was having dreams that something bad was going to happen to her parents. She recalls what happened on that devastating day.
“The windows started breaking and it just got so loud and I can remember my family saying you know, this is it,” said Ari. “If something happens to us, we are together. I just had a gut feeling that we were all going to die.”
Members of the Hallmark family were together in a bathroom in the middle of the home. Ari said she remembered her dad, Shane Hallmark, holding on to her tightly.
“I really don’t think that if he wouldn’t have held me like he did that day, I don’t think that I would’ve survived,” she said. “I had extensive damage to my lungs from where he held me so tight.”
The tornado threw Ari 200 yards from her grandparents’ home leaving her with a fractured skull, a broken collarbone and a broken arm. She spent five days in the hospital. Her parents, Jennifer and Shane Hallmark, grandparents, Phillip and Ann, and cousin, 17-month-old Jayden Hallmark, did not survive.
Now, Ari is 16 years old. Her maternal grandmother, Susan Garmany officially adopted her.
“I’m extremely thankful for her,” said Ari. “She has made my life ten times easier.”
The two live in the house her father finished building less than two weeks before his death.
Ari is also living the life of a typical teenage girl. As a sophomore at Arab High School, she spends most of her free time with both competitive cheerleading and varsity cheer. She also recently became a licensed driver.
“I know my dad would probably be mad at me for having a Toyota because it’s not an American-made vehicle, but I love life,” said Ari. “I’m in love with life and I think I have a purpose to be here.”
She says that purpose is to share her story and her testimony. She wants to bring happiness, joy and peace to people that have lost a loved one or are just going through a hard time.
About a year after the storms, at just 7 years old, Ari wrote a children’s book called, To Heaven After the Storm. It chronicles her experience in the moments after the tornado hit. It is also meant to help other children coping with loss.
In the book, Ari writes that she briefly joined her family members in Heaven. She describes in vivid detail seeing her father, Shane, who had been bald all of her life, with hair.
She writes that, “my daddy did not have his glasses. And he did not have the marks where they were.”
She says an angel came to her and told her it was time to go back. She says she then remembers waking up in a field near her grandparents’ house.
Proceeds from the book benefit orphans and grieving children. Ari also started sharing her story and testimony through speaking engagements. She even traveled to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to help students dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting.
“I think my parents would be extremely proud of the person I’m becoming,” she said. “A lot of people tell me that I’m just like my mom. I can see myself in her.”
Ari knows, even now, she is never alone.
“I think a lot of times people look at me and they think, ‘wow, she lost five family members in one day and imagine how strong she is. How does she do it?’ I would like people to know that it’s not me. It’s not something special about me that has helped me get through this. I think that God has made it a whole lot easier on me to get through what I’ve been through. You know, anybody can do it. You can overcome whatever you’re going through.”
Despite all the challenges life has thrown her way in her 16 short years, Ari continues to provide hope for others.
“No matter what,” she said, “things get better.”