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‘Never give up hope:’ Scars remain in Phil Campbell a decade after April 27, 2011, tornadoes

After the storm Phil Campbell was tasked with not just rebuilding physically, but spiritually.

Posted: Apr 27, 2021 6:39 PM
Updated: Apr 27, 2021 8:01 PM

"It will never go away," for some 10 years can seem like a lifetime, for others, just yesterday.

Retired Phil Campbell Elementary School Principal Jackie Ergle vividly recalls spending hours in the hallway the morning of April 27th, 2011, before sending people home.

Retired Phil Campbell Elementary School Principal Jackie Ergle

Praying they'd be able to dismiss early, "I would say, Lord please lift this warning so that we can get our children home, just let us have time."

A decade later, a scrapbook preserving the town's defining moment in history now sits on a corner shelf in the school's library.

Each page, a bittersweet reminder of not just the pain, but also the compassion that poured in.

"We saw the awesomeness of so many who helped us through this disaster," she paused, and continued through tears, "but in our hearts we lost two precious children. I’ll never forget the day I walked into their classroom to those two desks to help the teachers. We had to clean their little things out, what was left to give to their parents."

Among the deaths in Phil Campbell were 10-year-old Ethan Knox, 9-year-old Edgar Mojica, and second-grade teacher Patricia Gentry.

"We learned that life isn’t certain. We don’t know about the next day," she said.

With the high school and surrounding area leveled, the elementary school turned into a safe haven for the community - a place to start to heal.

"I’ll never forget the day that our children return to school," recalled Ergle, "They wanted a hug, they wanted to tell you about the tornado their own interpretations of what happened and not only that, but they," she paused, "in their eyes, you could see that they needed us and we needed them."

"You’re never going to replace all the people we lost that day," said former Mayor Steve Bell.

To this day, he credits a small group of people who found funding to create the town's Memorial Park less than a year after the storm.

"It started the healing process," he explained, "just the recognition of those that we had lost and it’s a reminder of what can happen, so quickly."

Ten years have passed, yet visible scars still remain. Businesses are slowly returning, but the rebuild is not complete.

"A lot of the houses have never been built back, a lot of people have not moved back to town, a lot of them moved away," he said, "It changed not only the landscape, the complete makeup of the town."

It's been a long road for the people of Phil Campbell, and while progress can be seen, the road to recovery never truly ends.

"Never give up hope, never give up hope."

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