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Tornado-Battered Town Remembers Killer Storm

June 1, 1986

ALBION, Pa. (AP) _ This storm-battered community unveiled a memorial Saturday to the 12 people who died in a tornado that struck the town last year, then gave thanks to those who lent a hand in the cleanup.

″Some say Albion and Cranesville are back. We must remind them Albion and Cranesville were never gone,″ said U.S. Rep. Thomas Ridge, dedicating a plaque to the dead.

″You have proven people in a community can endure any adversity with the strength they draw from one another,″ Ridge told a crowd of about 300 people who attended the ceremony.

The memorial was placed on a corner of the lawn of the Sam Steff funeral home, which was destroyed by the twister and rebuilt.

The tornado that ravaged a three-block wide section of Albion at 5:15 p.m. last May 31 was one of 28 that roared through parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Canada. In all, 89 people died, 1,000 more were injured and damage exceeded $450 million.

Townspeople dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs during the service while barefoot kids played and babies fidgeted in their strollers. Many of the adults wore purple ribbons to symbolize the iris flower.

″The iris is the theme. In Greek mythology, it symbolizes healing or rebirth. This town has a resiliency like you couldn’t believe,″ said Robert McClymonds, publisher of the weekly Albion News.

Albion’s $2,500 memorial was built from the $160,000 that poured in from contributors across the nation.

Across the street, Howard Gibson had hammered a hand-painted sign onto a tree stump where their house once stood. It read: ″The Gibson’s say ‘Thank you.’ We have rebuilt outside of town. Albion is rising.″

The Gibsons were one of 49 families who started new lives out of town.

″It’s been a hard year. There have been lots of adjustments to make. You have to start over,″ said Kathy Gibson, who was pinned in the wreckage for an hour before she was rescued.

The town also presented floral bouquets to the families of those who perished. Ingrid Stahlsmith wept and embraced her daughter, Julie, when she picked up the flowers. Her 6-year-old nephew, Luke, died in his mother’s arms when their house collapsed.

″It doesn’t seem real until you come to something like this. Then you hear them read the name and you realize he’s really gone,″ said Mrs. Stahlsmith.

Earlier, Albion dedicated a playground it had built as part of the memorial. Another service was set Saturday night at Northwestern High School.

″We’re looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past,″ said the Rev. R.J. Reilly, pastor of St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Church, where a memorial mass was held.

Also Saturday, some 100 people attended a half-hour memorial service in Wheatland, Mercer County, which is about 60 miles south of Albion.

Eight people there lost their lives, 50 homes were destroyed and 12 of 13 businesses were damaged in the storm. Pennsylvania was hit hardest by the storms with 65 dead, nearly matching in one day the total of 69 people killed by tornadoes in the state since 1916.

Albion’s monument was erected on a lot adjacent to the church, where the roof was ripped off in places and all of its 100-year-old stained glass windows were shattered. The building has since been repaired.

The former railroad center in Erie County had 200 homes damaged, including 90 that were flattened or ripped from their foundation. Only 70 buildings in the town of 1,500 residents were untouched.

In the past year, the town has cleaned up the wreckage and rebuilt.

″There’s a tremendous pride in the town that almost everybody shares,″ Reilly said. ″I see an even greater togetherness since the tornado.″

Eleven congregations joined soon after the twister hit to form the Northwestern Interfaith Recovery Council, which raised $90,000 for the uninsured and underinsured.

The group fed, housed, clothed and helped rebuild homes of survivors.

The church also arranged to bring in volunteer workers from the Christian Reform Church in Kalamazoo, Mich. The volunteers put in more than 10,000 manhours of work since July, according to the Rev. James Schmittle, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church.

″We found ourselves to be extremely resilient people. We are survivors,″ said Schmittle.

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