Alabama

‘A brotherhood and a sisterhood of the heart.’ Beauregard pays tribute to tornado victims

Community remembers those killed by tornado outbreak in Beauregard, Alabama

Family members speak about loved ones that they lost in the tornado outbreak in Beauregard, Alabama. The Sunday, March 3, 2019, tornado outbreak left 23 dead and others injured.
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Family members speak about loved ones that they lost in the tornado outbreak in Beauregard, Alabama. The Sunday, March 3, 2019, tornado outbreak left 23 dead and others injured.

Bob Edwards never knew Marshall Lynn Grimes. But he showed up at his funeral, nevertheless. On his Harley-Davidson.

Edwards, 64, and his wife, Debra, of Sylacauga, Alabama, were among more than 100 motorcyclists who arrived Thursday from all over Alabama and Georgia to pay tribute to Grimes, riding the route from his memorial service to the cemetery.

“It’s a biker down and we support our family,” Edwards said of Grimes, one of 23 residents of the close-knit town of Beauregard who perished when a string of tornadoes touched down on Sunday, blasting apart houses and lives in a manner of minutes. Grimes, president of the local chapter of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, was killed, along with his fiance, Sheila Creech, 59, and 10-year-old Taylor Thornton, one of the youngest victims of the storm. Thornton’s friend, Grimes’ daughter, Kayla, 11, was injured.

“When he wasn’t riding his motorcycle, he was spreading the word of God from his bike,” his step-daughter Brooke Waldrop said of Grimes.

As work crews fired up chainsaws to remove toppled trees and volunteers swarmed over debris in search of personal belongings, the town began what is likely to be a long, grim cycle of remembrance and tribute to those lost, from the youngest, 6-year-old Armondo “AJ” Hernandez, to the eldest, 89-year-old Jimmy Lee Jones.

For Renee Frazier, the funerals start Sunday. She lost seven members of her extended family, including Maggie Delight Robinson, 57, a much-beloved registered nurse who had worked at the East Alabama Medical Center for 40 years, beginning when she was a teenager.

“She always had the best, brightest smile and she always had time for her family,” Frazier said of Robinson as she took a short break from clearing debris at her mother’s home. The seemingly solid brick house collapsed as the tornadoes raked over the town, momentarily trapping Frazier’s mother, Earnestine Reese, 72.

Reese, a daughter and her husband and a grandson, survived the assault. Family members showed up within minutes, capturing in a video gone viral, Reese, surrounded by the ruins of her house, thanking God for sparing her life.

But relatives all around them were killed and the community will pay tribute to them by keeping their stories alive, Frazier said.

“This community is a brotherhood and a sisterhood of the heart,” Frazier said. “We’re keeping them with us.”

Memorial services were also held Thursday for Ryan Pence, who worked for the Eufaula Parks Recreation Department while he finishing up his final year toward a criminal justice degree. According to the Dallas Morning News, the North Texas native and his girlfriend, Felicia Renee Woodall, both 22, died in the tornado.

Investigators earlier in the week tracked down nearly a half dozen residents who had been reported missing after the spate of twisters and said the death toll is expected to remain at 23. That’s the highest fatality rate for a March tornado in Alabama since 1932, when nearly 300 people were killed, the National Weather Service said.

Four people remained in the intensive care unit in three local hospitals, but all were expected to recover, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris told reporters.

“My job now is to assist these families in the final disposition of their loved ones,” said Harris, who has met with the families of the victims. He announced late Thursday that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is donating $184,000 to cover the funeral costs for all 23 tornado victims.

Harris said the tribe first committed $50,000, but later asked him what it would take to cover all the costs “and they graciously made it happen.”

The money will be deposited with the East Alabama Medical Center Foundation and dispersed to funeral homes to cover the cost of the funerals, Harris said.

He thanked coroners from across the state “who arrived without hesitation” to help the county recover bodies and provide identification. He noted the solemn task was completed by Monday night.

Some families took solace at the sight of 23 white wooden crosses — and red hearts —put up in front of Providence Baptist Church, which has served as a gathering point for volunteers and families.

“Fly high, Road Dog, you will be missed by many,” read a message on the cross for David Dean, 53, who lived near Grimes and like him loved the open road on his motorcycle and died in the tornado.

Greg Zanis of Aurora, Illinois, who operates Crosses for Losses and creates each cross and heart by hand, drove to Alabama after finishing the 23rd piece. The master carpenter has been making the “gift of love” for victims of natural disasters and mass shootings since his wife’s father was killed in 1996.

“It’s not about the cross, it’s about that big heart,” he said.

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., toured the devastation Thursday morning, speaking at one point with grandparents who had lost a grandson to the tornado and were sifting through debris in hopes of finding a school lunchbox.

“It’s the little things that mean a lot,” Jones said. “Your heart just breaks.”

For the full list of those who died in the tornadoes, go to www.ledger-enquirer.com.

Miranda Daniel contributed to this report.
Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
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