By Magen McCrarey
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Heads were bowed in silence on Saturday, March 2, at First Baptist Church of East Bernstadt. The pews were packed with survivors, first responders and volunteers who gathered in remembrance of the six individuals who lost their lives in the EF-2 tornado that hit Laurel County one year ago.
The anniversary service, entitled "Rebuilding Hope," was a solemn occasion, but many reflected on a greater sense of community that rose up in the midst of tragedy.
"Folks from our fire departments, rescue squad, ambulance service were on the spot and they're always there when we need them," said Pastor Norm Brock. "We tend not to thank them nearly enough, so tonight part of this is to say 'thank you.'
"You are the first people in East Bernstadt who started the healing and rebuilding process," Brock continued.
Survivor Tracy Pitman was grateful for these first responders and for the many volunteers who dedicated days, weeks and months solely to help their community.
"I never dreamed that they (volunteers) would step up the way they did," she said. "We live in a good community."
Both her father- and mother-in-law — Wilburn and Virginia Pitman — fell victim to the March 2 tornado as well as Debbie and Sherman Dewayne Allen, Ethel Pruitt and Mary Ann Pruitt, who later died from injuries.
"I don't want nobody to forget Ethel Pruitt, and Mary Ann Pruitt, her daughter. She was my niece," said Margaret Bentley during the memorial ceremony.
Bentley herself is still recuperating from injuries sustained in the tornado, but is thankful she is alive.
"I was in my trailer with three others. It wiped us out, but all four of us walked away alive," she said. "My brother said there was no way he thought I was going to be alive. I've had surgery and I'm still under a doctor's care, but God let me keep my arm so far. I broke it five times."
Immediately following the March 2, 2012 tornado, the E.B. church became a place of refuge for victims. Members of the community knew they could count on First Baptist for food, shelter, clothing or just simply prayer.
"You all were there to help them restore their faith, help them move forward," said Laurel County Judge Executive David Westerfield.
The church continues to feed the community, offering food and fellowship for victims and first responders following Saturday's service.
"I think the victims would reinforce what I said as far as their needs being met each and every day. This is not something you can just recuperate from overnight. It has been one year today, and we are still rebuilding, reorganizing. I think this is something we will be doing years into the future, because this is not something you can overcome very easily," he added.
Polly Sizemore, a church member and volunteer at the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department, took a moment to reflect on the community's camaraderie and perseverance that followed through months after the storm.
"For some people, it will never come to a close, for the loss they experienced, for the ones that lost their families, and for the ones that have rebuilt, they're trying to find closure as a community," Sizemore said. "There's a lot more strength here."
In the end, Brock shared his prayer that the East Bernstadt community could always remember, but continue to move forward.
"May we not be marked by the storm, but the hope that comes from it."