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Leap Day Tornado remembered

Harrisburg remembers loss of life, work of heroes

updated: 2/28/2017 10:43 AM

HARRISBURG -- Brandon Culkin remembers exactly where he was when the 2012 Leap Day Tornado hit.

The Harrisburg firefighter was serving as a severe weather spotter when he ended up directly in the tornado's path.

"I came across town at the wrong time," Culkin said Tuesday morning at a remembrance service denoting the 5-year anniversary of the tornado. "I had to pull over because the wind and rain was too much to drive. I was on the phone with my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I was making sure she was safe and sound."

Then it hit.

Culkin's vehicle was right in the path of destruction the tornado left as it traveled between the FS complex at the south end of Main Street going toward Walmart. Culkin had pulled over along the stretch of U.S. 45 in between. The force of the storm blew out the windows of his vehicle and knocked it to the other side of the highway.

Somehow, both of his shoes came off in the process and when the storm had passed, he said he remembers putting them back on before trying to climb out. He said he also remembers two people approaching to help him. He said he thinks about the tornado frequently.

"I had to have some stitches and had some cuts and scrapes, but I feel blessed to still be here. It was just by God's hand that I wasn't hurt worse," he said. "It was a very tragic day, and I think a lot about what happened, and the eight lives we lost. I am very thankful to be here today."

At the memorial service Tuesday, city officials, residents, clergy and survivors of people killed in the storm gathered at the memorial next to the First Mid-Illinois Band & Trust branch on the south end of Harrisburg, which was placed along the EF-4 tornado's path.

Dark gray skies and a heavy drizzle in the air reflected the somber mood of the occasion. Harrisburg Mayor John McPeek asked for a moment of silence for the eight people killed in the tornado and the Rev. Bobby Gentry, pastor of River of Life Church, offered a prayer.

Gentry told how he was walking along Water Street in the aftermath of the tornado that day when he was met by then-Mayor Eric Gregg.

"He said, 'Pastor, pray,'" Gentry told those gathered.

Gentry said in the wake of the storm, the community rallied.

"This tragedy came our way, but it didn't destroy us," he said.

Teresa Pankey, known by many as "Mama T," sang "God Bless America" before McPeek offered some words about the city since the storm.

"In the hours, days and weeks after that event, Harrisburg has grown to be better," McPeek said.

Gregg, who was mayor when the storm struck, said that day's events are always on his mind.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about the Ferrell family and the other families who lost loved ones," Gregg said.

Jaylynn Ferrell, a 22-year-old nurse at Harrisburg Medical Center, was one of the eight people killed in the storm.

Gregg said he was thankful more people were not killed. He said the tornado shifted its path by the Pauper Cemetery crossing, avoiding the large Saline County Housing Authority apartments along Barnett Street.

"It was going right toward the housing project, which was 95 percent full of people at the time," he said. "It made a left. If it had hit that housing, God knows what would have happened."

Gregg said moments after the storm had hit, he was on the phone with Eldorado Mayor Rocky James, who immediately began to send Eldorado city police, fire and rescue personnel. He said a few moments later, he was on the phone with State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who said he would begin getting as much help to Harrisburg as possible.

"There was no politics, no Democrats or Republicans," Gregg said. "It was people helping people. It was an outpouring of love and support I pray and I wish we could feel every day. We don't want a tornado or a natural disaster to bring us together. Let's come together. Our country -- we need to come together."

Phelps then spoke, remembering being in Springfield when he got the call.

"We all remember life events and where we were," he said.

He said in his rush to return to Harrisburg that day, he was pulled over by a police officer for speeding in a school zone.

"I said, 'here's my license, I just have to go," he said.

The officer didn't ticket him, he said.

Phelps downplayed his role in recovery efforts, saying he made many phone calls to arrange for help for the city. He praised the work of police officers, firefighters, rescue workers and volunteers.

"Folks, I saw heroes that day," Phelps said.