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Tornado memorial ceremony honors victims & community resilience

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LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) –  Tuesday, April 28 is the anniversary of an EF-3 tornado that hit Limestone County, killing two people, injuring 30 others and damaging or destroying numerous homes.

It came three years after a series of tornadoes ripped through the state killing hundreds of people.

So, remembrance and awareness are on the minds of many people as we collectively deal with memories of deadly tornadoes in the Tennessee Valley.

Tuesday morning, a small crowd of people gathered to remember that, and other tornadoes, that have shaped the history of Limestone County. They met along Highway 72 to look back on the lives lost in tornadoes dating back to 1924.

At Bethel Cemetery, Limestone County emergency responders, community leaders, residents and members of the media reflected on the lives taken by tornadoes in north Alabama and the scars left behind.

“Everyone here, it’s the one thing that we have in common,” said Teresa Montgomery.

She showed up to remember her aunt and uncle who were killed on April 27, 2011.

“Glen and Janice Riddle,” she said.  “They were killed but their grandchildren survived.”

She said many of the bricks used in the memorial came from the Riddle’s destroyed home.

It names 32 people killed dating back to 1924 and as recent as one year ago.

“We had another horrific tornado that damaged hundreds of homes and killed two people in the Coxey community,” said Kelly Kazek, a member of TRAC, Tornado Remembrance and Awareness Committee.

Dorothy and Earl Hollis are the newest names to be added. But organizers wanted to bring attention to the strength and resilience residents showed as soon as they realized they shared a common thread.

“Today is not only about remembrance but also awareness,” said Rebekah Davis, another member of TRAC. “Awareness not only of the deadly power of these tornadoes but awareness of a great debt of appreciation that we owe to a community that rallies around and cares for its own.”

Meanwhile, for two others who came out to the ceremony today, the memories of the destruction from 2011 came rushing back.

“We ask that your comfort and blessings be with survivors, Lord,” said Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson in a prayer to begin the service.

“It don’t get no easier,” said Seth McElyea.

He came out with his grandmother Maudie Turner.

“I live it every day,” she said through tears.

Turner’s daughter, who is Seth’s mother — Jan McElyea — died April 27, 2011.  She was a lab technician and 47 years old.

Jan McElyea and son

When they look at her name on the memorial, the images of that day come back.

“She headed out for home and she just run right in it there on 31,” said Turner.

“I was headed back to her house to see if she had made it home,” said McElyea.

His truck was damaged in the storm, but his mother’s car was crushed. And there’s a painful story for each of the 32 people listed on the memorial.

Organizers of the ceremony read their names, then explained the monument is not just about the loss, but also about the recovery.

“How we all came together as a community after these events and how we were able to rebuild,” said Kazek.

But there are two new names — Dorothy and Earl Hollis — who died one year ago from a tornado. Survivors will tell you that kind words and new property only go so far.

“You can replace a truck, but you can’t replace a Momma,” said McElyea.

“You just don’t get over losing a child,” said Turner tearfully.

The memorial was built with bricks from homes destroyed on April 27, 2011. It was built and paid for by donations from community members.