Friday afternoon, one year after an EF-4 tornado devastated Tuscaloosa, people gathered in Coleman Coliseum at the University of Alabama to not only remember what it had lost, but what it had achieved.
Although 53 citizens of Tuscaloosa died that day and vast sections of the city were entirely destroyed, the city, along with the rest of the state and even some of the country, came together to pick up the pieces and begin the long process of recovery.
Terri Brewer, Assistant New Director at WVUA-TV, gave the opening remarks for the ceremony. “We’re here to remember the 53 people our community lost one year ago today and to show our support for their families,” Brewer said.
Following Brewer’s introduction, the Stillman College Concert Choir sang the Star Spangled Banner and the Rev. Dr. Kelvin Croom led an invocation.
Dr. Judy Bonner, interim president of the University of Alabama, then addressed the crowd to reaffirm UA’s dedication to assisting with the recovery efforts. “You see, we’re not just located in Tuscaloosa,” Bonner said. “This is our home. It’s a place we take with us wherever we go and whatever we do. To the families of victims who we lost and the community we love, I want to reassure you that the entire University of Alabama family – our students and faculty, our staff and alumni, friends and supporters – carries you in our heart always, and especially today.”
The service then recognized the lives that had been lost to the tornado one year ago. First, a bell was rung once for every life lost to the storm. Fifty three times the bell rang out to a silent crowed. Brewer then read out the name of the victims as a memento – a small glass cube with the name of the victim etched into it – was presented to their family. Fifty three names were read and fifty three names appeared on the Jumbotron above the floor of the coliseum, some with pictures to put to the names, some without.
Governor Robert Bentley, a Tuscaloosa resident, then addressed the crowd. “Today we mark a somber event in our state’s history,” Bentley said. “As we observe today’s anniversary, let us look ahead to the work that remains to be done for the people of Alabama. … Today as we pause to pray and give remembrance to those that we lost, we also should remember those that survived. And I want to take a special moment to thank our first responders, our national guard, our civic and community leaders and our countless volunteers from Alabama and all over the country.”
Tuscaloosa County Sherriff Ted Sexton then gave a special thanks to the first responders before a video tribute in honor of first responders. “We can never forget what Tuscaloosa county’s first responders did here for all of us on that terrible day,” Sexton said. “Some people go entire lifetimes wondering if they made a difference. Tuscaloosa’s first responders will never have that problem.”
Following the video, Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum recognized the magnitude of the disaster and the corresponding magnitude of the community’s response. “Our darkest hour has become our finest hour,” McCollum said. “We even had to order some of our employees to go home and take a rest after having spent more than 24 hours in continuous service.” A video tribute to the community response then played.
After the video, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox addressed the crowd to reaffirm that Tuscaloosa will recover from the devastation of the storm. “This evening we gather as one people, to grieve together, to heal together and to look towards a new horizon together,” Maddox said. “When we leave this place, the families that you see here will still carry with them the pain that only God’s grace can ease. In our neighborhoods, our streets, our business corridors will still show the scars of that horrific day. In time, hearts will begin to mend and the destruction will slowly fade. But what will never vanish is who we are and what we have become following the days and months since April 27. … Together as a community we demonstrated that hope is not something dreamed of in a faraway place or something that is just reserved for fiction. In Tuscaloosa, hope is alive.” Another video then played to show the damage still left from the storm alongside the progress that has been made to rebuild communities. In the video, a common thread through all of the videos and speeches of the memorial was solidified into a single statement: “We are coming back.”
Several groups involved with the recovery effort – including first responders, faith-based organizations which aided in the recovery process and volunteers – were then asked to stand before being lead in a closing prayer by Pastor Shaun Faulkner of Soma Body of Christ Church. Following the prayer, Justin Oliver, a junior at American Christian Academy, sang “Amazing Grace.”
Brewer then closed the memorial by thanking the families of storm victims, those who were involved with the recovery effort and the entire community of Tuscaloosa. “I believe I am in the company of thousands, countless other people who believe their life has been changed by the messages you have shared,” Brewer said. “We can honor the memory of those lost and honor those who have served by never forgetting what we learned one year ago today and always recognizing the gift of each day. On behalf of all of our speakers today, thank you for sharing this meaningful day with us. God bless each of you, God bless the community of Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama and everyone affected on April 27.”