“We like our place. And in a disaster like this, it's just a natural response to both rally around the military and protect our community. Those two threads run deep in this community. ”
A day before thousands of people lined Chattanooga's streets for Staff Sgt. David Wyatt's funeral, senior train master David Johnston and a handful of other Norfolk Southern employees quietly drove those same streets, scouting for a place where they could park their own tribute -- a special locomotive, painted to honor emergency first responders and law enforcement.
The tribute locomotive just happened to already be in Chattanooga that week, and employees in Norfolk Southern's diesel shop wanted to place it along the funeral route as a show of respect.
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So they drove, checking the railroad's tracks against the planned procession route. But there wasn't a good spot to put it. None of Norfolk Southern's railroad tracks were quite right.
The effort could have ended there, but instead, Johnston reached out to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and asked to use a stretch of their tracks — along Holtzclaw Avenue, the final block of the route before the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
Sure, president Tim Andrews said. And so the tribute locomotive stood by as Wyatt's funeral procession passed. Four days later, for the funeral of Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, two locomotives were there — Johnston had arranged to bring a second veterans locomotive from Illinois to the same stretch of track.
"We wanted to show our support for the veterans, the first responders and the families," Johnston said.
That sentiment has echoed across the city in the days after a gunman killed four Marines and a Navy specialist at a military site near Amnicola Highway July 16. Almost as one, Chattanooga residents pulled together to support not only the families of the men who died, but also to present the city as united, even after a divisive event.
A day after the attack by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, about 1,000 people attended an interfaith memorial at Olivet Baptist Church to mourn together. The next day, neighbors gathered at the Abdulazeez family's suburban home to cut the grass, to water the flowers and tomatoes.
Eight days after the attack, local Baptists visited a local mosque for Friday prayers, to show their children not to fear the unknown.
As the days ticked on, thousands of people visited the shooting sites and left flags and mementos, creating a sea of red, white and blue. Vendors printed #ChattanoogaStrong T-shirts and signs and stickers, and donations for the military and law enforcement members involved in the attack mounted.
Tribute billboards peppered the city. National and local politicians praised Chattanooga's response to the tragedy. Children sold lemonade as a fundriaser, restaurants donated their proceeds, motorcycle clubs organized memorial rides.
On Friday, the families of the men killed in the attack were given about $120,000 — results from just one of several fundraising efforts, including a GoFundMe for an injured Chattanooga police officer that raised more than $20,000.
Pete Cooper, who as president of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga is heading up much of the fundraising, said he is not surprised by the city's rally.
"Tennessee seems to have a very close connection both to military and the love of community," he said. "We like our place. And in a disaster like this, it's just a natural response to both rally around the military and protect our community. Those two threads run deep in this community."
After tornadoes ravaged the area on April 27, 2011, Cooper saw a similar response, he said. Volunteers donated chain saws, worked to clear debris and took food to families who'd lost homes. Cellphone companies set up generators to charge long-dead cell phones. Emergency personnel worked around the clock.
Just like the July 16 attack, he said, the tornadoes prompted an all-out, Chattanooga-is-here response.
"And while it's different this time," he said, "it's the same threat."
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