Tornado Victims Remembered in Tuscaloosa
A low hum of construction work is all that spoils the ambiance in Beverly Heights, a quiet Tuscaloosa neighborhood.
Friday, houndstooth bows were tied to every neighborhood mailbox in memoriam.
Some of the memories of that horrific evening of April 27, 2011 will eventually fade. But no one will forget what happened — because Dianne Rumanek won’t allow it.
The Tuscaloosa native owns the home where an EF4 tornado claimed the lives of three college students with north Alabama ties.
They were among the 53 killed in Tuscaloosa when twisters claimed more than 250 lives across the state.
Large-scale memorials are planned throughout Alabama on Friday, but a quiet ceremony was held in remembrance of Danielle Downs, Will Stevens and Loryn Brown at 31 Beverly Heights.
Priceville natives Downs and Stevens were huddled with Brown, the daughter of Ardmore High School football coach Shannon Brown, when the house took a direct hit.
Downs, 24, went to the University of Alabama, Stevens, 22, to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa and Brown, 21, to Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.
Rumanek’s daughter Kelli also lived in the house but was at the library when the storm barreled through.
The four families gathered at the site on Friday.
“I just don’t want this to be forgotten,” said Terri Downs, mother of Danielle Downs.
Three trees on the verge of blooming will serve that purpose. They sit in the front yard of the rebuilt home known to generations of students simply as “The House.” Each family chose the type of tree planted several weeks ago. Stevens’ dogwood sits to the left of the driveway across from Downs’ weeping cherry. Brown’s magnolia sits down the sloping front yard near the house.
Darrell Stevens said they considered a Bradford pear, but a horticulturist talked them out of it.
“It’s real weak,” Darrell Stevens said. “But we want to put something out that’s pretty strong and will remind us of Will.”
The pink blossoms of the weeping cherry have a deep meaning for the Downs family. Danielle Downs was a longtime supporter of breast cancer awareness after her grandmother survived a bout with the disease.
The families drove down in February to help plant the trees. Tied to the limbs of the dogwood is a bracelet the Stevens made to support the scholarship fund created in their son’s memory. A similar bracelet Terri Downs wore for months dangles from Danielle’s weeping cherry.
Nameplates were dedicated at the base of each tree while a friend of Loryn Brown strummed his guitar and performed an original song he wrote for the occasion.
Like so many Tuscaloosa streets, Beverly Heights was an escape from the bustling Alabama campus. But in just seconds, 22 trees were deposited on Rumanek’s house. The shade was gone, but it will return just as the house did.
Construction ended in March and a few young adults now live in the modern three-bedroom home. Special instructions were given to the builders.
“I told them, don’t try to take shortcuts,” Dianne Rumanek said. “It just has to be nice. The crews Googled the kids and once they found out what happened, they kept it clean as can be. I think on Danielle’s birthday, someone left balloons and it just choked them up.
“This is forever. This is where the friends and family are going to come. We have to take care of it.”
FEMA workers also pitched in. They quickly removed debris and roped off a makeshift memorial erected for the three students. The new residents take turns watering the memorial trees.