RINGGOLD, Ga. - Christie and Mark Higgs sat side by side on the Ringgold High School gym bleachers with matching blue shirts as residents crossed the floor to find a seat.
The back of their shirts read: "There's no place like home."
Their shirts said what many residents felt as more than 500 people packed into the gym Friday evening to celebrate their recovery and mourn those who died last year.
One year ago and almost at the exact hour, residents were instead huddled in basements and closets as a killer EF4 twister traveled across the highway into downtown Ringgold, killing one. Both the middle and high schools were then smashed. When the tornado got to Cherokee Valley Road, seven more residents were killed, dozens more injured and left homeless.
But the feeling at Ringgold High School was pride. Pride that the community had pulled together.
"If you're proud of the strength your community has shown, clap your hands," Ringgold High School Principal Sharon Vaughn shouted through the microphone.
The room exploded with applauds and shouts.
A similar sentiment was how the storm caught people off-guard. No one expected it to hit Ringgold. They were protected by the mountains, according to the old wives' tale that was passed down from generatio to generation, some said.
"It's not something you're expecting that you're not going to graduate with two of your classmates," said Samantha Greeson.
Two students from the high school were killed, Chelsea Black and Adam "Tex" Carroll.
But people felt that even though the storm hit by surprise, everyone united.
"Everybody helped everybody," Christie Higgs said. "Color's no issue, money's no issue."
And the theme throughout the ceremony also was gratitude to God for protection and courage. As the music blared over the loudspeaker moments before Vaughn grabbed the mic, the lyrics floated through the gym: "You give and take away, my heart will choose to say Lord blessed be your name."