14 News Special Report: Healing in Harrisburg - Tri-State News, Weather & Sports

14 News Special Report: Healing in Harrisburg


The deadly tornado that leveled homes and flattened businesses across Southern Illinois and Harrisburg struck a year ago this week.

Even more devastating is the loss of life from the storm. Eight people were killed when the tornado swept through.

But as we approach the first anniversary of the Leap Day tornado, we're finding out that there is healing in Harrisburg.

One year ago, reporters we from parking lots, showing you piles of debris from a toppled strip mall.

By now, the debris is gone and what you can't see in its place is a lot of hope around Harrisburg.

It's a city still recovering, but one that has come a very long way.

What happened in a single minute of 4:56 a.m. on February 29, 2012 changed more than 9,000 lives.

"It was just horrible. It's like the worst thing, ever, you know," Harrisburg resident, Stacy Cottom said.

It changed the entire town of Harrisburg.

"I heard people outside screaming just like bloody murder. I was just terrified," tornado survivor and Harrisburg High cheerleader, Morgan Burklow told 14 News.

"I can't even describe it. It was like the most horrific day of your life," Stacy said.

Directly in the path of that EF-4 tornado was 91 Brady Street.

"We heard it and then it was on top of us," Stacy said. "We landed, we were actually behind these two units kind of in between in that field there."

Somehow, Cottom walked away with scratches, bumps and bruises. Her husband, Doug, broke his back, pelvis and three ribs.

But on Brady Street they were the lucky ones. "There were three on our left and three on our right that passed away, and we lived," Doug Cottom said.

Six of the eight people killed by the tornado were Doug and Stacy's neighbors. To them, survivor's remorse is something very real.

"We were down, down because of the fact that we had lived and our neighbors had died. You lay there and think about it. You wonder why you're alive and they're not, because we were right in the thick of it just like they were and they perished and we didn't," Doug said.

As it claimed lives, the tornado tore apart the Cottom's neighborhood, much of it reduced to rubble. A nearby strip mall was flattened.

"As I came around this curve I realized Walmart had been hit. I turned to my left and realized that the mall, which was a new mall that was sitting here, was completely, you know, gone," Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg said.

In the hours and days that followed, Mayor Gregg watched his community suffer and say goodbye, then strengthen and stand together.

Before long, his small town in Southern Illinois began to heal.

"Slowly but surely our town is just, it's unbelievable how back to normal it is at this point," Doug shared.

"I actually witnessed with my own eyes the best of people in the worst of times. That's something that to this day we carry on with," Mayor Gregg said.

The people of Harrisburg didn't rebuild on their own though, not by a long shot. Hundreds of volunteers helped make recovery a reality.

"I was getting letters from people in other states. It made me feel a lot better that people everywhere wanted to help," Burklow said.

"I think we've had people from every state in the union somehow be a part of this recovery effort and building this city back. It's a true testimony to the spirit of each one of us and to the spirit of this great country," Mayor Gregg said.

One year later, Harrisburg is not the same, but in many ways, it is stronger.

Brady Street, where six of Doug and Stacy Cottom's neighbors lost their lives, is standing once again. Number 91, included.

"We were adamant about getting right back there and even adamant about going back into the same unit. Just for the sake of moving on, getting on with it and proceeding," Doug shared.

From the Cottom's back yard, there's a view of an empty parking lot. Mayor Gregg says the leveled strip mall is coming back this spring.

Other homes are returning, too.

"This is what's going on in this entire city. People have rebuilt the city," Mayor Gregg said.

Then there's what's happening inside the Harrisburg High School gym.

After the tornado, basketball took on a bigger meaning, and being a Bulldog meant a little more.

"You felt like you were playing for the town and help everybody get their minds off of things," Dakota Upchurch said.

Dakota is now a senior, a tornado survivor headed to Carbondale next fall to play football for SIU.

Right now though, Dakota's focus is on the court where he and his teammates are ranked number one.

"It would mean quite a bit to me, but I think it would mean a lot more to Harrisburg to win state you know bring back the title," Dakota said.

"It would be like a way for us to show everyone that we've overcome this and we can pretty much do anything after that," Morgan said.

So despite all the heartache and pain, all the damage left behind, the tornado has, in a way, created something positive.

A town that stands united. A community that will come together this Friday around a new memorial meant to help Harrisburg remember that life-changing minute one year ago and to move on.

"I feel like our whole community's like a family now and it made everyone want to live in Harrisburg and be proud of where they are from," Morgan said.

"The saying here is, well as we are here is that if we get knocked down seven times, we will get up eight times," Mayor Gregg said. "We just are never going to quit or give up or feel sorry for ourselves and say we can't do it.  We'll find a way to get it done and we'll do it the right way."

That monument will be unveiled at 2:00 p.m. Friday at the Old National Bank Branch along Commercial Street.

There will be a moment of silence at 10 a.m. Friday and flags will be flown at half staff in Harrisburg.

In Ridgway, there are events planned Friday and Saturday nights at St. Joseph's gym:

Registration begins 6pm

Registration and food will be happening until 7pm

Then at 7pm they will be thanking/showing appreciation for all those who helped Ridgway after the tornado in the clean-up process:

  • Registration begins 6 p.m.
  • Registration and food will be happening until 7 p.m.
  • Then at 7 p.m. they will be thanking/showing appreciation for all those who helped Ridgway 

Harrisburg's boys basketball team played Wednesday night and they won. They will now play for a sectional title Friday night.

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