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Tornado-ravaged Clay celebrates moving forward

By Gary Lloyd

One year ago, this group of first responders, city officials and volunteers gathered in a living nightmare, heard buzzing chainsaws and sirens, cried.

On Saturday, the same group assembled under a charming sky, listened to local musicians and wandering ducks at Cosby Lake, smiled.

It was Clay’s official sign of moving forward from the Jan. 23, 2012, EF-3 tornado that destroyed 98 structures and severely damaged 241 in the city.

A scene from Saturday’s Clay tornado one-year anniversary commemoration at Cosby Lake
photo by Gary Lloyd

“I think everybody has got a good spirit and is ready to move forward,” said Clay Mayor Charles Webster. “That’s what we’re doing today — start anew, fresh.”

The Heichelbech family — father Darrell, mother Carol, son Joshua — received a proclamation recognizing Jan. 23 as Christina Heichelbech Day in the city. Christina, a 16-year-old Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School student who had already earned a full scholarship to Auburn University to study veterinary medicine, was killed in the tornado in the Steeplechase neighborhood, the city’s only fatality.

Darrell Heichelbech thanked the Clay community for coming together for his family.

“Know that it is through the prayers and the thoughts that we’ve been able to get through it thus far,” he said to Saturday’s crowd. “Without everybody praying for us and without the help, we would not have been able to make this. What I’m asking you to do is continue to pray for us, but more importantly take the time and if you see somebody who you think is in need, ask them if they need help because it really makes a difference. Ask people how they’re doing because even if you’re having a bad day and somebody asks you how you’re doing, the fact that somebody cares enough to ask makes a difference. And you need to know that.”

Darrell Heichelbech, with wife Carol beside him, speaks to the crowd Saturday at Cosby Lake.
photo by Gary Lloyd

State Sen. Scott Beason presented an Alabama State Senate resolution commending the city on its one-year anniversary and its coming together to help those who were and still are in need.

“I can’t thank you enough for trying to remind us that that’s what we need to do and that’s what makes communities like Clay so fantastic,” Beason said.

Michael Ciamarra, policy director for the Office of the Alabama Senate Majority Leader, presented a proclamation on behalf of Gov. Robert Bentely commending the “courage and faithfulness” of the first responders, volunteers, churches, nonprofits and public officials. The proclamation recognizes Clay’s “readily seen” progress in cleanup efforts and commends the city on its “outstanding achievements within the community to rebuild and recover.”

Webster said what he’ll remember most is being able to help people in the immediate aftermath of the tornado. He pretty much lost all his belongings to a 1993 house fire.

“I could relate to the faces that I saw,” he said. “I could tell. It’s just like you’re in shock. We’re moving in a good direction (now).”

Center Point Fire District Chief Donnie West said he was proud of his first responders, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the community as a whole. He said the months after the tornado showed how the community came together, capped by Saturday’s celebration of moving forward.

“It shows how a community that was broken by a tornado like this can come back together and be stronger than it’s ever been,” he said.

Contact Gary Lloyd at news@trussvilletribune.com and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.

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