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HARRISBURG — Life went on Monday in Harrisburg.

Nonstop traffic droned along U.S. 45 as it does most days.

Hungry patrons ordered their lunches at fast food drive-thrus.

Semi-trailers maneuvered tight turns of a shopping center complex.

In Harrisburg, life has endured this leap day, the first since the 2012 tornado four years ago to the day.

But it has changed, too, noted Eric Gregg, the city’s mayor when the EF4 twister reached Harrisburg at 4:56 a.m., beginning an eight-mile stretch of destruction that claimed eight lives. The twister continued toward Ridgway, about 20 miles away, where a church was destroyed.

“Four years ago today, our lives all changed,” Gregg stated before more than 100 mourners at a leap day memorial of the “unbearable” loss of those who died, the hundreds who were pulled from their homes and hurtled into the sky, and the residences and businesses torn to shreds.

The memorial was held at the First Mid-Illinois Bank and Trust, 719 Rollie Moore Drive just off U.S. 45.

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about it,” he continued. “The tornado changed us.”

Standing among the aftermath of the storm’s devastation with his son nearby in Gaskins City, one of the hardest hit areas in Harrisburg, Gregg watched as person after person rushed to fallen homes, delaying any shock they may have experienced.

“I was taken aback by something that moves me to this day and it will for the rest of my life. Our good people did not run from that devastation. They ran into it,” he said.

First, it was the city’s residents. Then people from Carrier Mills, Eldorado and Galatia arrived, followed by more from across Southern Illinois.

From those immediate moments following the storm to roughly a year later as the city rebuilt, some 6,000 volunteers poured into Harrisburg with their aid, many from other states, said Jerry King, privileged, he said, to be a volunteer for the ministerial alliance and Saline County Emergency Management.

He has maintained contact with the ministers of various churches that came to the region to help, and he is comforted knowing compassion flowed into Harrisburg that day and will again where ever destruction strikes next, he said.

“Feel blessed for that,” he said.

Though the tornado succeeded tearing apart families from loved ones or homes from their foundation, it simultaneously pulled a community of strangers without borders together, observed Harrisburg Medical Center CEO Rodney Smith.

Regardless of differences, whatever they may be, those who came to search or rescue, those who catered to the injured at a hospital with a missing wall, those who slept in church cots to build new homes will always be connected, Smith said.

“I truly believe that all of us, whether you were a volunteer or in the police department or fire department … I believe we all have that bond, and I am thankful and grateful to be part of Southern Illinois and this family,” Smith said. “Thank you for the bond we all created.”

That bond, Harrisburg Mayor Dale Fowler said, standing among waving American flags stationed around a memorial stone bearing the names of the eight men and women killed, was that Leap Day 2012 would never be forgotten.

The aftermath of the 170 mph winds, more than 200 yards wide: 604 homes and businesses affected to some degree, 99 of them completely destroyed, 53 left with major damage. The mayor’s office received correspondence from 22 states and 13 countries represented by people who came to help.

Fowler then named the dead, followed by a moment of silence.

The victims were: Jaylynn Ferrell, 22; Lynda Hull, 74; Mary Osman, 75; R. Blaine Mauney, 74; Donna Mae Rann, 61; Randall Earl Rann, 64; Donald R. Smith, 70, and Gregory Swierk, 50. 

“Today is an opportunity for us to remember the lives that were lost and to show our love and support the families affected and to uphold our word that they will never, ever be forgotten,” Fowler said.

That was all Ida Evans could ask for, one of eight to be handed a yellow rose in memory of the dead — her father, Smith, was one of them. Several of her family members lived in the Brady Street Apartments where others also perished or were hurt.

“It is extremely nice to see so many people come out and so many words of compassion and see everybody still remembers our family that we lost because we remember them every day,” the Creal Springs woman said after the ceremony.

As life goes on, though changed.

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Nick Mariano is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering Saline, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

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