Utica remembers tornado victims 10 years later

April 21, 2014 (UTICA, Ill.)

There had long been a false sense of security in Utica - that a town in a river valley would be immune to a tornado. It wasn't.

Utica was ripped up by 200 mile an hour winds, which crushed the Milestone tavern, killing eight people who'd huddled there for safety. A ninth victim was later attributed to the tornado.

A light rain fell as Utica remembered a night ten years ago when the weather was far worse, when a tornado slammed the town crushing the Milestone Tavern where eight lives were lost. The name of each of the victims were read aloud.

Gayle Abbott came 2500 miles to honor the memory of her brother Jay Vezain, and to see the unveiling of a new sculpture permanently placed at Utica's tornado memorial. Pieces of an old auger rounded to spin in the wind.

"I came up with the idea of making stainless steel hearts, broken hearts with initials forming the broken part of the heart," said Steve Seaborn, artist.

"The broken hearts, cause that's how we feel. The symbolism is immense," said Tom Vezain, Jay Vezain's brother. "And to be planted forever will be symbolism for this town."

Part of Monday night's remembrance also honored the man who led Utica through its darkest hour. Fred Esmond, the former mayor of Utica, died of cancer last fall.

"The way he lead just helped everyone else to hang in there and know we could do it," said Gloria Alvarado, Utica mayor.

"You never seen him get excited. He was always calm," said Bob Guerrero, Utica resident.

Never ruffled, much beloved. His leadership style helped a small town rise again, as was said Monday night, like a Phoenix from the ashes of despair.

"We'll always remember and mourn those people, and pray for them," Alvarado said. "But we've had to move on."

Utica has rebuilt. The landmark tavern that was badly damaged has survived. Silos that were shredded like tin cans stand again as does a ball field that was badly mangled. There's a new town hall, and Route 178 follows a new path.

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