Younger Sibling of 9-Year-Old Missouri Tornado Victim: Now 'I'll Have to Be the Big Sister'

"I was flying around in that tornado," said Avalinn Rackley, 7, whose 9-year-old sister Annistyn was killed near Caruthersville. "I prayed to Jesus to take care of me."

9-year-old tornado victim Annistyn Rackley
Annistyn Rackley. Photo: Courtesy of the Rackley Family

When Annistyn Rackley was born with a rare liver disease that required major surgery at just 2 months old, small-town Caruthersville, Missouri — hard against the Mississippi River in the rural southeast corner of the state — poured out its heart to raise funds for the family's medical expenses. The bubbly young girl then grew up to become a dancer, a gymnast and compete in team cheerleading.

Now the community of 6,000 is rallying for the Rackleys again — this time with prayer, as a tornado spawned by a wave of storms that left destruction and death across six states Friday night killed the 9-year-old and left her mother, Meghan, a kindergarten teacher, unresponsive in the hospital with multiple broken bones and a traumatic brain injury.

"Meghan is fighting for her life," says Meghan's aunt, Sandra Hooker, 62, who is also a teacher. "But I do believe a miracles."

"Anni was a miracle," she says. "She was born with biliary atresia. Eighty percent of the children with this disease have to have a liver transplant by the time they are 18. And so here she is at 9, living a full life. And she didn't act like she was disabled or handicapped in any way. Her mom and her dad encouraged her and supported her to live life to the full."

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"And she did," Hooker tells PEOPLE, "right up till the tornado killed her. So God gave us a miracle with Anni."

"I believe she was an angel walking among us, because she was so kind and sweet and loving and caring, not just to me, but to everyone," she says. "And God can give us a miracle with Meghan."

9-year-old tornado victim Annistyn Rackley
From left, Annistyn Rackley with sisters Avalinn and Lani. Courtesy of the Rackley Family

Meghan, 32, her husband Trey, 37, and their three girls — Annistyn and younger siblings Avalinn, 7, and Lani, 3 — had moved to their new home outside of Caruthersville just one week before the tornado leveled it.

But a devastating tornado that struck the area in 2006 had made the parents storm-aware, and even before the move, the family had designated safe spaces in their homes in case another storm approached.

"We've talked about it several times," Hooker says. "Where's their safe place going to be? Are the girls going to know? Meghan and Trey had discussed it. And we all agreed that they had an interior bathroom with no windows [in the new home]. And that would be the safest place."

"That Friday afternoon, everything had been canceled — Christmas parties, ball games — because we were expecting the bad weather," continues Hooker. "About 7:23, I texted Meghan and I told her, 'The storms are about 15 minutes away. Get ready.' She texted back, and then she texted me again. And I texted her and said, 'The sirens are going off.' And she texted back and she said, 'I'm in the bathroom.' And she sent me a Snapchat picture of the girls in the bathtub."

"Trey said Lani had gotten out of the tub and he got on top of her, on the floor," adds Hooker. "And Meghan was over the tub on the two older girls. And he said he could hear it coming. And it was like the house 'popped.'"

Trey told her that the chaos sounded like a loud train, "and then he was up in the air, and trying to hold Lani."

Hooker says the house is now splintered.

"There's very little left," she explains. "Her car was moved probably 30, 40 feet from where it was and turned around. Trey's Jeep was probably a hundred yards from the house where it had been parked. … They had an acre lot surrounded on three sides by a field. The trees in the front yard were uprooted. The front door was in a tree behind the house. The stuff was just strewn everywhere."

Trey was flung by the howling winds into the wet mud.

"He immediately got up and started trying to find his family, because there's not a better daddy in this world, not a better husband, even though he has a broken vertebrae and a broken rib and all these cuts and abrasions and things on his body," Hooker says. "And he's been shaken terribly from the tornado. But he gets up and powers through it, and is hunting in the mud for his family."

"He found Ava, and the 7-year-old is precocious — and has, in my opinion, a near photographic memory," Hooker adds. "When she got to the hospital and the doctors and the nurses asked her, do you know what happened to you? She told 'em yes. She said, 'I was flying around in that tornado.' And she said, 'I prayed to Jesus to take care of me. That tornado just spit me out and threw me in the ground, in the mud.'"

9-year-old tornado victim Annistyn Rackley
Annistyn Rackley. Courtesy of the Rackley Family

Ava was still in pediatric intensive care as of Monday afternoon.

"Her stomach was distended, and they were looking to make sure that she didn't have some kind of belly bleed," Hooker says. "They brought in a specialist to clean the debris out of her eyes. She has several broken vertebrae in her back, and they are going to be putting in some rods and things on Wednesday morning."

"But Ava had been asking about her mother, 'Is mommy alive?'" she says. "They told her, yes, her mommy's alive. Then yesterday they took [Lani] up to the PICU and let [Ava] see her."

Hooker recalls Ava asking her grandmother, 'Where's Anni? can you take me to see Anni?'"

"They knew that this was gonna come," says Hooker. "The child psychologist came into the room and helped her grandmother tell her. You could just tell how much it affected her."

"And then as she recovered, she said, 'Am I gonna die?' And her grandmother assured her that she was not gonna die," continues Hooker. "Then she said, 'Then I'll have to be the big sister to Lani.'"

Lani, the youngest, was released from the hospital Sunday, but still with hairline fractures in her vertebrae, Hooker says. Trey was released morning after the storm.

"All of them were absolutely covered in mud from head to toe," Hooker says of the immediate aftermath. "They had abrasions and scrapes, bruises, lacerations, little cuts. They had splinters in their skin. The little girls' eyes were just absolutely matted together with mud."

During surgery for deep lacerations to her abdomen, one of Meghan's lungs collapsed, then the other, and now she's breathing with the aid of a tracheotomy, her aunt says.

Amid Meghan's fight, the family is keeping vigil while they and their community make plans for Annistyn's funeral.

"The loss, it is exponential," Mandi Alexander, a friend of Meghan's, said at an emotional gathering of some 200 people Sunday at a riverside park to memorialize the young girl, TV station KAIT reported. "There are no words."

"Annistyn was bubbly," she said. "She was the best kid. She was the strongest kid."

On Monday night, after family members who picked through the debris of the Rackley home found the torn front page of Annistyn's Bible engraved with her name, along with a doll she especially treasured, a Pemiscot County Sheriff's deputy knocked on Hooker's door. He wanted to turn over Annistyn's favorite blanket, thick as it was with mud stains after being found in the field.

"I know she's in heaven," Hooker says.

But she adds that finding those three specific, tangible pieces from the girl's life are a comfort. Hooker prays they'll provide further comfort when they are placed in Annistyn's casket and buried alongside her.

"Maybe she won't be forgotten too quickly," she says. "And she'll never be forgotten by us."

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