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Ellicott remembers Memorial Day 2001 tornado

By Scott Harrison
Published On: May 21 2013 06:38:20 PM CDT

Memorial Day 2001 twister destroyed high school but taught valuable lessons.

ELLICOTT, Colo. -

Monday's tornado in Oklahoma has the residents of an El Paso County town recalling a twister that struck 12 years ago.

"The darkness was the big thing," said Ellicott music teacher Chris Smith.  "Usually, it's bright.  It was just dark everywhere."

The tornado touched down just before 7:30 p.m. on Memorial Day -- May 28, 2001.  Many residents still were out of town, or just returning, from the holiday weekend.  The twister hurt 18 people, left 60 others homeless, destroyed the town's high school and caused nearly $9 million in damage to the school district alone.

"We had kids in the building that Monday," said Danielle Van Esselstine, a former teacher who's now the school's principal.  "They left about 10 minutes prior to the tornado hitting."

Dejon Sanger, secretary for Ellicott School District 22, said many residents moved away after the tornado.  However, Smith said new residents moved in to replace those who left.

"I learned how a community can be devastated in just a short time -- and how a community does pull together in a short time, as well," said Sanger.

The town has tried to learn from the tragedy.  The 2001 fall semester started on time in portable classrooms.  A new high school was built and opened seven months after the tornado.  The school contains reinforced walls for added safety.

"Where we originally had students in our evacuation plan, we would have lost a lot of students (in the tornado)," said Van Esselstine.

A federal grant paid for building a sturdy concrete tornado shelter located behind the middle school.  It's designed to protect students from the middle and elementary schools, and the general public if necessary.  The shelter also was used this past winter to shelter stranded travelers during blizzards.

Patrick Cullen, the district's new superintendent, said it's the first time he's worked in a district that has a separate tornado shelter.

"I think we're as prepared as we can be," said Cullen.  "But I don't think you can ever prepare for what happened in Oklahoma."

Smith said the district takes tornado drills more seriously now.

"When you're practicing it, it may (seem) just another drill," he said.  "But practice it the way you're going to perform it."

District staff offered advice and encouragement for the Oklahoma tornado victims.

"Just kind of be there for one another," said Sanger.  "Just do the best you can.  If help is offered, definitely accept that."

"The big thing is assessing where you're at," said Van Esselstine.  "We really had to look at our procedures and make sure we changed what we needed to protect our kids.  Then, work together as a community."

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