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After tornado, Alabama students finally get graduation day

By Moni Basu and Keren Goldshlager, CNN
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Alabama students finally graduate
  • The six students who died received posthumous degrees
  • Their families were on hand for the emotional ceremonies
  • Many students said this weekend's events are helping them heal
  • The commencement ceremonies were postponed after the storm

(CNN) -- There might not have been a truer definition of bittersweet than the events that unfolded this weekend in an Alabama college town recovering from an April day when the winds screamed and the houses blew away like feathers.

In the Coleman Coliseum, named after a long-time Crimson Tide historian, 4,770 young men and women, draped in black gowns emblazoned with red A's, marched down the aisles normally reserved for basketball audiences. Sports are big at the University of Alabama; the spirit of legendary football coach Bear Bryant looms large in these parts.

It was appropriate then that Fan Day, heralding the start of a new football season, falls Sunday, just a day after momentous ceremonies and remembrances that, this year, came with an uneasy blend of joy and sorrow, hope and despair.

A killer tornado twisted and turned through Tuscaloosa April 27, reshaping the lives of the latest batch of graduates at the university that dominates this otherwise sleepy town. Six of their own were among the 47 dead.

After the storm, the university ended the semester. School finished abruptly. Many students joined the community's relief efforts or went home.

This weekend's graduation helped bring closure, students said, and will help them start anew.

Friday night, the names of the six students who were killed were said aloud at a candlelight vigil on campus.

Scott Atterton, Danielle Downs, Ashley Harrison, Melanie Nicole Mixon, Morgan Sigler and Marcus Smith.

Their families watched as former student government President James Fowler laid down a red rose for each of their loved ones.

"Tonight we honor them," Fowler said. "Tonight we heal."

At the first of two undergraduate commencement ceremonies Saturday, University President Robert Witt called the names of their parents. They stood to applause and then accepted their children's diplomas awarded posthumously.

David and Darlene Harrison pinned photos of Ashley on themselves. It was hard to keep eyes dry.

"It was huge for those families to see the university body to recognize what they are going through," said Shannon Lindamood, who earned her degree in dance.

She could not imagine her own family -- her parents or her brother -- having to accept on her behalf.

"I know it will never be the same for them," Lindamood said. "But I hope this helped them."

The six were not there, among their classmates, for the all-important day that marks the end of student life and the start of the real world. Their absence bore down inside the Coliseum like a dark cloud hanging low, puncturing pomp and circumstance with the grief of what was lost.

'Walking for a city'

That April morning, journalism student Candace Murphy was out reporting on another storm north of Tuscaloosa. She was struck by the damage to people's homes, by the stealth destruction wrought so randomly.

She returned to the television station where she was working only to realize that what had been a news story for her could quickly become very personal.

The weatherman announced the tornado was heading straight toward Tuscaloosa. She could see the violent vortex speeding straight toward downtown and campus. When the power went out, Murphy knew it was serious.

"It's OK," said one of the anchors to her husband. "We'll make it." Murphy started crying. She huddled with others under the anchor desk and began praying. "Our father who art in heaven ..."

She pleaded with God: "Please let this be over."

Minutes passed. They felt like unending hours. When it was finally over, Murphy walked outside on campus and was, at first, heartened by the lack of devastation. The university campus was largely spared destruction. Everything was all right, she thought.

It was only later when her station sent her out to cover the tornado that she realized the scope of the suffering.

Forty-seven dead. Five have not been found to this day. Nearly 7,275 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed -- 12% of Tuscaloosa.

Murphy was heartbroken. This was the city that had shaped her. She had even learned to love football.

She felt lucky to be alive. But she also felt short-changed when she opened the university e-mail announcing the end of classes and the cancellation of graduation on May 7.

There would be no Senior Week. No last few nights of revelry with her Alpha Omnicron Pi sorority sisters.

"I couldn't experience any of that," she said. "I felt stripped of all my privileges."

Murphy remained in Tuscaloosa, continuing her job at the local television station. On the three-month anniversary of the tornado, she broke down. That's when it hit her hard, she said.

The images in her head were vivid -- of trees stripped of their bark, squished cars, missing walls and debris everywhere. She reported standing in front of a building once. She couldn't tell what it used to be until a man walked up to her and said: "That was my home."

Murphy thought she had healed. She hadn't.

But this week brought relief. Thursday night, she and 10 of her sorority sisters hit the town for one last hurrah.

Saturday, she will collect her degree in the afternoon ceremony with her parents, brother, grandparents and godparents looking on. "This will be a day I will never forget," she said. "I am walking not only for myself but for everyone in the tornado. I am walking for a city."

Closure and a new start

Desiree Mahr drove west on Interstate 20 from Atlanta Friday afternoon, back to the place she had called home for four years.

She thought of another drive she made more than three months ago.

After the tornado, Mahr left Tuscaloosa for home in Illinois. When she crossed the Alabama state line, she fought back tears. She had not wanted her college days to end like that.

"I never even got to say a proper goodbye," she said.

That haunted her as she began a new life on her own in Atlanta, working at a public relations firm. It felt strange in some ways to go back now as a graduating student. But she looked forward to finally draping a commencement gown about her, feel the mortarboard snug on her head.

Bethany Travis felt the same way. She, too, was returning to Tuscaloosa from Atlanta.

"We're going to start remembering our friends who aren't here to walk, and who can never even walk again," she said. "I think it's probably going to be more sad than happy."

In Tuscaloosa, Jessica Winters readied her dress -- a black, after-5 that she bought at J.C. Penney.

She had survived the storm huddled in the hallway of her apartment with her roommate. She put pillows on top of her head and prayed as windows busted and wood shards sliced through the rooms. An entire side of her apartment building was gone.

They are memories that Winters will live with for the rest of her life. Saturday, she will add to those memories in a good way.

"I am excited," she said.

The Rev. Kelvin Croom, whose church was destroyed in the storm, said it was time for the university, for the entire community, to move on.

"It was admirable of the university to postpone the graduation," said Croom, whose congregation includes five graduating students. "It's closure but also an opening. It's the beginning of another school year. What an awesome way to start it."

In another part of Alabama, Scott Atterton's mother stayed at home Saturday. The tribute to her son was too painful to bear.

But she plans to hang Atterton's degree in her house, a mark of his accomplishment given to him on a day when the University of Alabama reached an emotional milestone.