21st Anniversary Of Deadly 1996 Tornado In Fort Smith & Van Buren

RIVER VALLEY (KFSM) -- On April 21, 1996 an F3 tornado hit Fort Smith at 11:12 p.m. and later hit the Van Buren area, killing two people and injuring over 40.

Several historic buildings were destroyed in downtown Fort Smith before the half-mile-wide twister moved to neighborhoods on both sides of the Arkansas River.

With wind speeds of up to 200 mph, the tornado left two Fort Smith children dead in its wake.

Most residents in the area remember that night in April like it was yesterday.

Connie Johnson was with her five-year-old grandson, Kyle Johnson, the night of the tornado. She said all she remembers was the flashing light from her alarm clock waking her up. When she walked into the kitchen, she heard the tornado coming. Johnson said it sounded like loud crashes of thunder. She told the family to hurry and get into the hallway for safety.

The tornado passed over their home, and once it was over, it was too late to save Kyle's life. Part of the house had fallen on him; killing him instantly.

Over the years, the family tries to look onward. "We wonder what he would have been today," Johnson said. "He would have been grown and have children of his own. But life goes on. I'm proud to say that my children are giving me an 80th birthday party on the day of the tornado. That just shows something bad happens, but life goes on and good happens," Johnson added.

In Van Buren, the tornado tore through the area along Highway 59. Fortunately, back in 1996 the area was not very developed through there. But if the same F3 twister came through this exact area today it would be a different story. Causing millions of dollars worth of damage to multiple businesses and homes.

Van Buren city leaders said they would be prepared if a disaster like the 1996 tornado were to ever happen again.

"I think a lot of the structures might fair the weather better than in '96," said Crawford County Judge Dennis Gilstrap. "One thing that a community has to recover from is to get businesses back up and running and get people back to work," Gilstrap said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated 1,800 homes were either damaged or destroyed in the River Valley.

After the twister tore through Fort Smith and Van Buren, the same supercell produced another tornado in Madison County, which killed two more people.

To watch video segments produced by KFSM and distributed on VHS in the days after the storm, click here.