At 2:40 p.m. April 27, 2011, a large tornado dropped from a thunderstorm near Smith Lake in Cullman County.
Over the course of the next hour, it grew into a mile-wide monster packing winds of 175 miles per hour. It was an EF4, blowing apart homes and businesses, raking the landscape across three counties.
Nine members of one family were huddled inside a small bathroom in a house in Ruth, not far from Arab in Marshall County.
The house exploded around them.
Five of them were killed
One of the survivors was 6-year-old Ari Hallmark.
Ari lost both her parents, her paternal grandparents, and a young cousin.
But she has turned that unimaginable tragedy into something positive.
For the past 10 years, she’s been telling a remarkable story of healing and heaven – and a higher purpose.
“I was found about 200 yards from the house, somewhere over in this field over here,” Ari said. “And my whole family was actually found all together.”
From the day the tornado took her loved ones, Ari has been at peace. She doesn’t dwell on the tragedy. Her focus is her belief in the triumph of eternal life after death.
“I think that it was kind of a God thing – that I knew that they were all together and they were going to be OK because I worried a lot,” she said.
Before the tornado, Ari had dreams about her parents dying and whether her grandparents would go to heaven.
Not premonitions, she says. Just the insecurities of a small child.
It seems strange to say, but she says the tornado put her mind at ease about all that.
“I got to watch my parents go into heaven,” Ari said.
And she was there, too, briefly, before an angel brought her back to that field where she was found.
“I think my main reason – the higher purpose of me surviving – is that I have a message,” she said.
“I think that I can help a ton of people. I know that I have. And that brings me peace.”
With the help of a family friend who had some counseling experience, a young Ari was able to draw and write about her near-death experience.
It became the book “To Heaven After the Storm” and a follow-up booklet for children about how she is able to move past the literal and figurative dark clouds of that day.
“She’s been brave and courageous and told her story ever since,” said Susan Garmany, Ari’s maternal grandmother.
Garmany lost her daughter – Ari's mom – in the storm. She adopted Ari, referring to her as her grandchild child.
“She’s a precious girl. And she has a story to tell and that’s what she wants to do – to encourage other people,” Garmany said.
Ari hears from others working through their own grief, who have found hope and help in her strength.
“They just try to – try to confide in me through my story. And I find joy in that,” she said.
For one whose life came so close to being cut so short, Aris is determined to help as many as she can.
“Even though I guess that’s about the saddest thing that will ever happen to me, I had something very special happen to me that day. And I’m so glad that I get to share it all with you,” she writes in her book.
A neighbor who lives off Ruth Road put up a memorial and dedicated it to those who lost their lives in the storms.
They planted five trees here to represent those lives.
And they also etched these words into a granite stone: Those of us who survived owe it to those who didn’t to never forget. God bless the memory of the Hallmark family – Phillip, Anne, Shane, Jennifer and Jaden. April 27th, 2011.”