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Brimfield memorial; Service recalls tragedy, community.

Byline: Craig S. Semon

BRIMFIELD - A supercell thunderstorm developed over Western Massachusetts the afternoon of June 1, 2011. The storm strengthened and produced a devastating EF-3 tornado that ripped through Southwest and South-Central Massachusetts.

In Brimfield, many trees were uprooted and snapped. Many homes lost their roofs and were completely destroyed. Despite lasting a mere 20 seconds or so in a single spot, the tornado is blamed for taking three lives, including Virginia "Ginger" Darlow, 52, who died when the tornado overturned her motor home at The Village Green Family Campground.

Yesterday, exactly one year after the tornado hit, residents, family, friends, emergency responders, volunteers, distinguished guests and "Toto the tornado kitten" solemnly gathered at the very grounds where Ms. Darlow perished.

With Ms. Darlow at the time of her death was her boyfriend, Richard Reim, who suffered a concussion, six spinal fractures, numerous cuts and bruises and a few lost teeth. Yesterday, Mr. Reim, who was accompanied by Daisy, the couple's pet Pomeranian (also a tornado survivor), praised the community for pulling together after the tornado, before reminiscing about his lost love.

"I know Ginger was very happy here in her last days," Mr. Reim said. "Everybody here was her friends, her family. She loved it here. She loved all you people. ... I'm grateful for the kind of people who are here that made her so happy."

While he has physically healed, Mr. Reim confesses he still struggles emotionally with the day he "lost everything."

"I know what sad means now, and I experience it every day," Mr. Reim said after the ceremony. "Once in my life, I had everything that I really needed to be happy: work, a good woman next to me, a dog. And, all of a sudden, everything just got shattered in 15 seconds."

While yesterday's program was a remembrance, continual themes were those of community, perseverance and rebirth.

A tattered flag was brought down by several Boy Scouts who were tornado survivors, and replaced with a flag that once flew in Afghanistan and, during the ceremony, was flown at half-staff. Church bells were rung 39 times to symbolize the number of miles ravaged by the tornado's path. And butterflies were released, mainly by the children of families directly impacted by the disaster.

Another tornado theme event, a Picnic on the Common scheduled for noon to 4 p.m. today, has been postponed to June 9 because rain has been forecast.

"To see everybody that came here to remember what happened and to celebrate where we've come since then is really heartwarming," Fire Chief Fred Piechota said.

Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, celebrated the "indomitable spirit" of the emergency responders, state and municipal government and countless volunteers, as well as gave a special shout out to the First Congregational Church on the Common, which he credited as being the "best restaurant in town" for weeks after the tornado..

"We were hit by devastation, unimaginable. We remember those who were lost, forever in our hearts," Mr. Brewer pledged. "Mother Nature will heal the scarring ... Where the tornado had struck will be unrecognizable."

Mr. Brewer also told the crowd that, earlier in the day, Gov. Deval L. Patrick announced an additional $4 million to assist 10 communities (including Brimfield, Charlton, Southbridge and Sturbridge) in cleanup and recovery efforts. Communities are eligible for $3 million in tornado recovery work for the 10 communities to clear debris from parks and other public spaces. The $800,000 in tree replanting funds will allow planting of approximately 1,600 trees in parks and along streets in the 10 affected communities.

In addition, the Department of Conservation and Recreation will use $154,000 for cleanup work at Brimfield State Forest, as well as the installation of fire gates and improvements to fire roads. The funding also includes $50,000 for fire safety assistance grants to the 10 communities as well as surrounding communities that provide mutual aid for firefighting.

First Congregational Church pastor and Fire Department chaplain Ian Lynch understandably took pride in his little white church on the Common and how it became the one-stop place for supplies, food, shelter and emotional support after the tornado. But he also stressed that a person does not have to show up to Sunday morning service to be part of a community.

"This church has stood here before there was a Brimfield," Rev. Lynch said. "And I am very pleased that we were here unscathed when the tornado struck, being able to respond to all of the needs of the town, to be a place where all of you could come and take care of one another."

State Rep. Todd Smola, R-Palmer, also praised Brimfield for sticking together as a community and triumphing over what Mother Nature threw at them.

"The last year has not been an easy one. We know the challenges that you have faced and you are continuing to face today. But through strength and perseverance and a community coming together, that is what made the difference."

ART: PHOTO

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG

CUTLINE: Tornado-ravaged trees provide the backdrop yesterday as a flag that flew in Afghanistan is raised during a one-year anniversary remembrance at Village Green Campground in Brimfield.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 2, 2012
Words:871
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