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United in Remembrance: Sullivan observes first anniversary of tornado

Apr. 1—In a United in Remembrance program Easter Sunday at Sullivan City Park, the community observed the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that claimed three lives and left a path of destruction.

The program included prayer, a moment of silence as well remarks by local leaders. Near the end, several helium dove balloons that are biodegradable were released.

Speakers praised the community's unity after the disaster and the response of agencies and individuals in Sullivan's time of need. While much progress has taken place, they emphasized recovery is still underway and the community will continue to support those still rebuilding their lives.

The observance included the dedication of a new memorial in the park, with three benches in honor of those who died — Shane Goodman, Susan Horton, and her son, Thomas Horton — as well as a plaque honoring them, all survivors and the heroes who responded last year.

After the program, Marion Webb reached down to touch a bench dedicated to the memory of Thomas Horton.

Susan Horton was Webb's cousin. "It kind of makes it more real," Webb said. "We miss them every day."

After the tornado, "Sullivan came together, with so many people to help," Webb said. She moved to the community 30 years ago to be closer to family.

"Tragically, Susan and Thomas [Horton], they didn't have a chance that night," she said. "We're thankful we have the family we do have, that survived." Other family members had homes destroyed, Webb said.

One of the speakers in the "United in Remembrance" program was Mayor J.D. Wilson, who was director of public works when the tornado occurred.

"A year ago, we were faced with an unimaginable disaster that tested our purpose, challenged our spirits and forever altered our landscape," Wilson said. "But the in the face of adversity, we stood together as a community, united in strength and compassion."

Wilson said he is humbled by the resilience and togetherness that defines the community.

He gave tribute to all those who supported Sullivan during cleanup and recovery, both those within the community and those from outside.

The collaboration of agencies, volunteers, friends and family was "truly remarkable," he said.

"We showed the world what it means to be Sullivan strong, ... neighbors helping neighbors, strangers becoming friends and a community coming together as one family."

That unity "has carried us through the darkest of days and brought us to where we stand today," he said.

While progress has been made, "Let us also remember that our work is far from complete. The road to recovery is long and there are still those among us who continue to rebuild their lives. It is our duty as a community to stand by them, to support them and to ensure that no one is left behind," Wilson said.

He urged the community, "to lend a helping hand and to spread kindness and compassion wherever we go."

Jim Pirtle, Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency director, told the families of Shane Goodman and Susan and Thomas Horton, "You are in our hearts and prayers as we reflect on this one year anniversary."

And to the tornado survivors, he said, "You are an inspiration to all of us. Your strength and resilience has shown us what it means to be a community."

As he responded to the tornado a year ago, Pirtle himself lost his home in the tornado.

He praised the volunteerism that resulted and the work of all responding agencies, churches, school/college groups, contractors and more who cleared debris, ensured the safety of people and provided needed supplies.

"I'm so proud and truly blessed to live in Sullivan County, Indiana," Pirtle said.

Jason Jones, pastor at Westside Church, encouraged those who may still be struggling mentally or emotionally to seek help.

"It is not a sign of weakness to seek help, it is sign of wisdom," Jones said. "There are people in this community who are with you and want to walk through this with you."

Others who spoke or offered prayer were Bob Davis, Sullivan County commissioner, Pastor Dave Cox, Sullivan First Christian Church and Pastor Lance Newton, Sullivan First United Methodist Church.

The memorial site was spearheaded by the Sullivan Cares Tornado Memorial Group, which raised money for benches and a plaque.

"Some community members came together and wanted to make sure something was done for the town [and county] commemorating what happened and also those who were lost," said Raemie Cooley, one of the organizers.

Cooley got involved because "I love my community. It was something that needed to be done," she said.

She credited T&T Outdoor Solutions, Blann and Son and Whitfield Concrete Construction for their donation of labor and materials in constructing the new circle and walkway.

After the program, Mayor Wilson said he hopes the observance let those still recovering from the tornado know "we have not forgotten about them ... It's been a long year and a tough year, but we're still in this together."

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com. Follow Sue on X at @TribStarSue.