‘We will never forget it,’ Utica Gathers to Memorialize Deadly Tornado

Utica unveils new tornado memorial

Perhaps fittingly, the Saturday sky was gray and overcast with a biting wind. If anyone in Utica needed a reminder of the life-altering weather 20 years ago, Mother Nature delivered on cue.

None of the 100 spectators gathered Saturday in Utica needed any such reminders. Ten lives were lost in the 2004 tornado including Vivian Goetz of Granville. The other nine died in Utica, which bore the worst of the storm. Saturday, Pastor Lloyd Johnson read aloud the nine names while village trustee John Schweickert rang handheld bells.

“We will never forget it,” Mayor David Stewart told the throng.

A new memorial now stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets, on the parcel where the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge once stood. Eight of the nine Utica victims took cover in the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge and died in its collapse. The wood carving displays an eagle in a somewhat abstract outline.

“The artist wanted to leave it open to interpretation so everyone can form their own thoughts,” Stewart explained. “When we look at the sculpture, we think of it as a symbol of the courage and the strength of everyone involved that night.”

It was short ceremony – only a few minutes longer than the storm needed to devastate Utica and launch a rebuilding that in some ways continues – and most of the past and present former mayors, first-responders and trustees stood solemnly in deference to a few guest speakers, including former Utica fire chief Dave Edgcomb.

“Yes, it was a tragedy – there were lives lost, property lost – (but) it brought this community back together,” Edgcomb said. “There were people helping people that hadn’t talked to each other in years.

“But look at what you’ve done now. You’ve got a beautiful downtown. You’re back ... You’ve built back. You’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

That is indeed so. While Saturday was primarily a commemoration of the lives lost, the list of cumulative accomplishments spurred by the tornado is lengthy and undeniable.

Route 178 was realigned. The village pressed for a bypass that funneled truck traffic off Mill Street, allowing for periodic street closures and outdoor dining

The combined village-police office, destroyed in the tornado, was replaced with a municipal complex (at the old grade school) and with a separate police department.

When the Illinois River bridge was replaced, Utica chipped in for installation of a multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists to cross into Starved Rock.

The tornado-damaged block soon will be home to the Market on Mill, an outdoor retail plaza. Groundbreaking is a few weeks away.

Tourism not only bounced back but expanded. Utica has enjoyed a four-fold increase in retail sales receipts since the recovery began.

“As resilient as the community of Utica is, ‘recovery’ turns out to be an enduring, unending process just as remembrance needs to be,” said Village Engineer Kevin Heitz. “All improvements that the village presidents and trustees have made to this community since that day have always kept this path altering event in mind.

“Improvements will continue to be made well into the future that honor and remember this historic event”

Getting the recovery off the ground wasn’t easy. Discussions over realigning Route 178 were launched mere days after the tornado and the still-fresh shock and grief prevented any kind of consensus. Village attorney Herb Klein remembered that Esmond had vision for Utica that not only restored Utica but improved its drawing power.

“Coupled with the completion of several beautiful subdivisions, construction of the new school, commercial development near and the success of Grand Bear Resort which opened not long after the tornado,” Klein said. “Utica has had tremendous growth recovering from that dark day.

“I find it inspiring that on the 20th anniversary the most damaged block is under construction to become an addition to the downtown that will become itself a destination.”

Tributes poured not only for those who lost their lives 20 years ago but for those who oversaw the rebuilding, led by Esmond.

“Sometimes we just need that leader who can step up and keep everyone calm,” said village trustee John Schweickert. “That was Fred for sure.”

“Words can’t describe how proud I am to have them as parents and as grandparents to my kids,” village trustee Pete Pawlak said of his late parents. “The work and hours that they put into Utica are countless. That’s who they were: they loved this town.”

Source: Putnam County Record