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Harrisburg honors lives lost in Leap Day tornado

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Dozens of people gathered in Harrisburg this weekend for a series of ceremonies to remember the lives lost from a deadly EF-4 tornado that struck the city eight years ago. 

Now known as the Leap Day Tornado, the deadly storm brought the community together with a promise to never forget what was lost.

In the pre-dawn hours of February 29, 2012, the residents of Harrisburg woke to discover a path of destruction that injured dozens and claimed the lives of eight people.

The city held a memorial Friday morning at a monument erected in honor of the community coming together to rebuild and heal those wounds.

One of the speakers was Eric Gregg, who was mayor when the storm took place. At that time, he vowed the city would rebuild and he would forever carry the names of those lost lives, and kept that promise Friday.

Pulling out a folded up sheet of paper at the ceremony, Gregg said, "It's a little more tattered eight years later, but here it is ... "

He read aloud the names of the victims which include Randall Earl Rann and Donna Mae Rann, Jaylynn Ferrell, Lynda Hull, Donald R. Smith, Mary Osman, Gregory Swierk, and R. Blaine Mauney.

The ceremony was a somber gathering that included song, prayer and a moment to reflect on what neighbors achieved working together. Members of the National Guard stood at attention nearby with one placing a wreath near the monument. 

Mayor John McPeek, who currently resides over the town, was also in attendance on Friday.

"Everybody came together and stuck together that whole time," said Mayor McPeek, after the ceremony. "I feel like our city is a lot stronger today because of the way we all came together that day."

A series of tornadoes struck the Midwest both February 28-29, 2012. The string of destructive storms would later earn the title, the Leap Day Tornado Outbreak.  

Altogether, more than 30 tornadoes touched down over those two fateful days; The EF-4 in Harrisburg was the most destructive and the most deadly.

Senator Dale Fowler (R Harrisburg) was home that morning. He said signs of the destruction still persist today, if you know where to look.

"You just don't forget these things, and this was total devastation but, as I mentioned, one thing I'll never forget, is the outpouring of support that almost instantly flowed into this town of Harrisburg and this area," said Fowler.

He added that the support arrived from throughout the nation and not just food and supplies, but people who came out to help.

"People that I didn't even know where in my yard, picking up debris, and trying to make sure that we were okay, and searching homes," Fowler recalled. "You know, you just don't ever forget those things when you live through that."

The ceremony ended with a prayer asking for a continued strength of renewal.

In a separate ceremony Saturday, the families of the victims met at the tornado memorial where they took turns speaking of overcoming their grief, and the support they provide each other. As they gathered, there were hugs, tears and smiles for those seeing each other since the last memorial.

Joe Rehana

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