published Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Graduation day bittersweet for parents of storm victim

Allan and Vega Sigler of Bryant, Ala., accept a degree from the University of Alabama on behalf of their daughter, Morgan Sigler, Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Morgan died when a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27.
Allan and Vega Sigler of Bryant, Ala., accept a degree from the University of Alabama on behalf of their daughter, Morgan Sigler, Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Morgan died when a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Saturday was the day Morgan Sigler had talked about for years -- the day she would march with her classmates in black gowns, flip her red tassel to the left and wave to her family in the proud walk back to her seat.

Saturday came and hundreds of students marched across the stage at Coleman Coliseum at the University of Alabama. Their parents cheered in the bleachers, and the students smiled for the dozens of clicking cameras.

But 23-year-old Morgan Sigler, of Bryant, Ala., was not there. She and five other students -- Scott Atterton, Danielle Downs, Ashley Harrison and Melanie Nicole Mixon -- were killed April 27 when a tornado ripped a gash through the heart of Tuscaloosa.

Sigler and Atterton were lifelong friends from Bryant. Sigler's boyfriend, Blake Peek, also died that night.

"You see all the kids coming in, and you picture your daughter's face with them," said Allan Sigler, Morgan's father. He held Morgan's degree in his hands. "It hurts when she's not part of this, sharing this moment."

On Saturday, the University of Alabama gathered to graduate the thousands of students who were sent home without their degrees in May, as well as the August graduates.

Parents and family members of five of the six students who died accepted their degrees in a special ceremony during the graduation. Atterton's family did not attend but will receive his diploma.

Allan and Vega Sigler cried as they walked back to their seats. Vega Sigler held the diploma with Morgan's name on it. She wiped away tears as she listened to her daughter's classmates being called to the stage.

"I kept thinking about what Morgan would've done as she walked across the stage," Vega Sigler said. "I know she would have done more than just shake hands; it would have been a photo moment."

She added, "It should have been us here with her."

RENEWING AND REMEMBERING

Saturday was a bittersweet day, the excitement of graduation tempered by memories of the devastation and dozens of lives lost when an EF-4 tornado ravaged the town April 27.

Just blocks from the campus, the wounds can be seen in splintered homes and twisted trees, in debris still floating in Forest Lake.

Signs on boarded-up businesses promised, "Coming back soon." Roofers peeled off the blue tarps and nailed down sheets of shingles in the sweltering August humidity.

In some lots, bulldozers have raked clean the red Alabama clay. Other homes looked untouched since that night, their doors marked with red spray-painted X's and "4/28," the day rescuers searched through the wreckage.

Sigler, Atterton and Peek were killed at Peek's home on Cedar Crest, just off 15th Street. When rescuers found the three, Morgan was lying between the two men, as if they tried to protect her, her father said.

On Friday evening, students, faculty and family gathered for a short memorial service.

"In the days after the storm, we had to send the students home -- there was no sense of closure and no opportunity to celebrate the lives of the students," University of Alabama President Robert Witt said. "We want to both mourn their loss and celebrate what they accomplished in their lives."

Student Government President Grant Cochran read eulogies for the six who died, as students lighted six candles and presented red roses to the families.

Cochran stopped several times, his voice breaking in his grief.

Atterton planned to teach and coach basketball, Cochran said. He was an outgoing student who always would be remembered as a kind role model.

Sigler, who loved art and sculpture, had a knack for making others laugh.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox promised the families and students the city would rebuild in a way that would honor the lives of those they loved.

"We met the worst of Mother Nature with the best of humanity," he said. "Now a new story will be written."

"SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO"

For the Siglers, the weekend was a way to reach out to their daughter's friends and build more memories of the daughter they miss so much.

They shared stories with her art professors and fellow students. Sometimes they laughed and sometimes they cried.

"It is something to hold onto, to remember her by," Allan Sigler said. "This university has been unbelievable how they have reached out to us. God has used them to help us."

The art students have made pottery and pieces of jewelry for the Siglers. The department also did an art show of Morgan's work this summer.

Brooke Lofton, 22, and her parents stopped to talk to the Siglers on the way out of the stadium. Lofton took most of her classes with Morgan.

"She is just so full of life, so, so funny," Lofton said. She clutched her own diploma tightly as she talked about her friend, speaking about her in the present tense.

Students called Morgan 'Country,' teasing her about her Sand Mountain accent, Vega Sigler said.

"She'd say, 'Mom, they make fun of my accent, but it's not like they aren't all from Alabama, too,'" she remembered, laughing.

Morgan Sigler was a daddy's girl. As a kid, if either of her two older brothers sat next to her father, she would wiggle her way between them so she was the one sitting next to him.

She first majored in engineering to follow her father's footsteps, but she eventually switched to art. She learned to play golf so she could play with her father.

She and her mother planned their next steps together -- her graduation, moving back home with her parents and starting a business together that would use her artistic talents.

Friends, family and their faith in God have made the last four months possible, the Siglers said, but their loss fills each day.

"You think about it when you wake up in the morning and it's the last thing on your mind when you go to bed," Vega Sigler said.

For her parents, Morgan's legacy will always be her love of art and her caring faith, they said. They plan to establish a memorial fund in her name that will be used to buy art supplies for mission trips.

One moment in her life best sums up who she was, Allan Sigler said as he shared a final story.

In January, their church youth spent a few days in Pigeon Forge. One evening, Allan watched as Morgan noticed a young girl, new to the group, sitting by herself. Morgan got up, asked several of her friends to go with her and walked over to the girl. They sat down and included the girl in their conversation.

"She reached out to that girl because she was alone," Allen Sigler said. "Morgan was beautiful on the outside, but growing up, I always told her what was important was that she was beautiful on the inside. She was."

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about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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rolando said...

Heartbreaking. So young, so much more to come.

My condolences go out to this family and all who have lost a loved one in this way.

August 7, 2011 at 1:56 p.m.
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