Firefighter Dustin Johnson, left, and Lt. Joel Willis, with the Tri-Community Fire Department, unfold an American flag before hanging it at half-staff during a dedication ceremony for a monument to the 15 people from the Apison area who died in the April 2011 tornadoes.
Community members who lost their lives
Jo Ann Darnell
Mary Hullander Raper
Bobby Ray Raper
Holly Lea Readus
Janice and Warren Oliver always had been close to Janice's brother Donald Christian and his wife, Dorothy.
Donald loved to visit his sister and brother-in-law in Tennessee, and after some encouragement, he and Dorothy moved to Apison about 20 years ago.
"I'm almost sorry I asked him to move down here, but you never know how things are going to turn out," Warren Oliver said.
Donald and Dorothy Christian were killed in the tornadoes of April 27, 2011.
The Christians were just two of the 80 people who died when the storms cut a path of destruction through the tri-state region 17 months ago. The Apison-Cherokee Valley area was devastated, and 15 people lost their lives.
On Sunday, family and neighbors gathered to dedicate a monument to their lost loved ones.
Warren Oliver said Donald Christian had been on the phone with his son, who was warning him to get out of the area, when the tornado hit and the line went dead.
Warren and Janice believe that is the moment when Donald died.
In the aftermath, Warren offered to help clean up the Christians' splintered home, digging through the rubble and scraps of two people's lives to recover their remains for burial.
"That was a very hard thing to do, but I did it because I loved them," Warren said.
Donald's body had been thrown 19 feet from the home. Dorothy's was next to a retaining wall outside the house.
"She was annihilated," Janice Oliver said. "But we were able to view him, which was good for the family."
On Sunday, the Olivers sat behind the monument with their gospel group, the Melody Makers, which performed during the ceremony. On the other side of the monument, families of many of the other victims sat facing the band.
The names of all the dead are incised in the large gray stone, which was erected on the corner of East Brainerd Road and London Lane. Funding came in part from the Salvation Army -- which donated $16,575 -- as well as from money raised by the Apison-Cherokee Valley Relief Committee.
The location, next to the Apison community sign on East Brainerd Road, was chosen because it is the center between the two areas, according to Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander.
"We can rebuild houses; we can put the trees back," said Hullander, who served on the committee and ran Sunday's ceremony. "But these people are gone from our lives forever."
For Blue Smith, the monument will serve as a reminder of his mother, Mary Hullander Raper, who died along with her husband, Bobby Ray Raper.
"That way Apison will remember, and new people who move in here will know who they were," he said.
In front of the monument is a bench where family members can sit and reflect. A flagpole next to the stone will have a flag flying at all times, Hullander said.
Members of the Tri-Community Fire Department raised the flag as Elliott Smith, a senior at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, played the bagpipes.
Then, as each victim's name was called out, the flag was lowered until it reached half-staff.
The Olivers found the music of the ceremony particularly moving because it reminded them of Donald -- his favorite music was gospel.
The bagpipe music also triggered emotions for the Olivers. Warren said the hollow, almost lonely sound of the instrument made it powerful. But for Janice, the music conjured memories of her brother.
"People are buried all over," she said. "It's good that we have a spot to come to remember."
Rachel Bunn is originally from Ellijay, Ga., and graduated from the University of Georgia with degrees in magazines and history. While at UGA, she wrote for the student magazine UGAzine, served as news editor for the student newspaper, The Red & Black, and spent a semester studying British history at Oxford University in Oxford, England. She has previously worked at The Rockdale Citizen in Conyers, Ga., and The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the ...