By Lora Scripps
As the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” drifted mid-morning Friday through a 150-person crowd gathered to remember and reflect at a groundbreaking of the Limestone County Tornado Memorial, four lines of the song performed by Renee Stubblefield, the cousin of the late Jan McElyea, who died during the April 27 tornadoes, summed up where many were a year ago to where they are today,
“Through many dangers, toils and snares ...
we have already come.
’Twas grace that brought us safe thus far …
and grace will lead us home.”
“One year ago today, this brick was part of a wall that made up the home of one our neighbors,” said Kelly Kazek, Tornado Remembrance and Awareness Committee chairwoman, holding up a brick at the site of the memorial off U.S. 72 in front of Bethel Cemetery. “This brick, like each of these stacked here, represents a dream, and a loss of that dream. It represents shelter, family, home, comfort, refuge.
“We are here today because many people lost those things on April 27, 2011. We are here today because some local residents wanted to see these bricks used to represent something else: the resilience of community that came together to help one another recover after the tragic events that day, when seven tornadoes hit our county and 62 struck our state, killing 247 Alabamians, including four of our neighbors.”
The memorial groundbreaking organized by TRAC was designed to be sure those who died are not forgotten and ensure Limestone County will always remember the outpouring of aid that came in the wake of tornadoes, according to Kazek. From emergency responders, to law officers, to next-door neighbors, church groups and strangers from across the nation, on Friday Limestone County honored those who helped during its time of need.
The memorial will honor each person killed by a tornado in Limestone County’s history. Since 1900, at least 30 people have lost their lives.
Members of the community who were responsible for the recovery in Limestone County spoke Friday including members of the Limestone County Commission, Athens City Council, Limestone County Emergency Management Agency, United Way and others.
“When you look at all the things that have happened to us as a community, one of the things that we do the best is we hold on to each other and start steps toward hope and recovery. We are a resilient community,” said Kaye Young McFarlen, executive director of the United Way of Limestone County. “We care deeply about one another and nothing has been more evident.”
Limestone County Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee said last year’s tornadoes changed people’s lives. “We can replace our homes, but we cannot replace lives,” he said. “I want to thank the people of Limestone County for the efforts put forth toward recovery.”
Athens City Council President Jimmy Gill said times like April 27 show that the community is united. “One thing about this community is we know how to pull up our boot straps and work together in love and harmony,” Gill said. “We know that goodness and amazing grace. Grace brought us and grace will carry us … In Limestone County, when one hurts, everyone hurts.”
When TRAC first began planning a remembrance, two elements came to mind: memorializing those who died and honoring those who help rebuild as well as the county’s own rebuilding spirit, Kazek said.
The United Way and the Rotary Club helped fund the plaque and construction. Al and Matt Burns with Precision Masonry have donated hours in planning and will construct the memorial and members of Bethel Church of Christ including Don Bowers and Marshall Springer allowed use of the cemetery land for the project.
The design will include the names of those killed by tornadoes throughout Limestone’s history. The names will be etched on a concrete base in the shape of Limestone County. Short walls will be built from bricks of some of the more than 700 homes reduced to rubble on April 27. The bricks will also form twisted supports that will hold a bronze plaque. The plaque will tell the story of Limestone’s tornado history and thank those who helped rebuild.
“It’s simple, but we feel it is powerful in its symbolism,” Kazek said.
She said the location is also important. “This cemetery was in the path of the EF5 twister that struck that day,” she said. “It is centrally located for anyone who wishes to honor those named on it.”
At the end of the groundbreaking ceremony, family members who had lost loved ones to tornadoes and first responders ceremonially laid the first bricks for the monument. Family members of Jan McElyea laid bricks for Jan, who died April 27 as she drove home from her job, where, as a single mom, she worked hard for many years to provide for her son. The family of Shannon Sampson, who was killed while trying to reach her “Gran Gran” Sue Eady on Chipmunk Way, laid bricks. The niece of Janice and Glen Riddle, who both died protecting the lives of their three grandchildren, laid bricks. Members of the families of those killed in 1974 laid bricks and those who were the first on the scene of tornado ravaged Limestone County a year ago, who worked pulling their neighbors from the rubble, clearing roadways and protecting their brothers and sisters, laid bricks marking the anniversary of a day that will not be forgotten.