A lot has happened in the 20 years since a devastating tornado struck Hall and White counties, but William Simerly remembers that day like it was yesterday.
His wife, Tonja, and their 6-year-old son, Austin, both were killed in the storm near North Hall High School.
“There’s a lot of things I wish I could change, but I can’t,” Simerly said. “I just bottle myself up. It helps now to talk about it, but it’s just a lot of things I wish I could change.”
He, along with other family members of those who lost their lives and other community members, gathered Saturday, March 17, in Clermont to remember the day that now serves as an unwelcome bookmark in the county’s history.
Simerly said he was at his boss’s house early on the morning of March 20, 1998, getting ready to do some work on a house they were remodeling when the storm came through. He was safe, but he got a phone call after the tornado was finished tearing through the county, telling him he needed to come home.
When he got there, he realized his wife and son didn’t make it. There was nothing left of his little blue house.
Debris was everywhere. He found his wife lying on the ground. His son wasn’t far away.
“She was one of the ones I was looking at when I found our wedding pictures,” Simerly said.
Those photos, which he picked up immediately, along with the rest of their belongings were strewn as far as he could see.
“They found baby pictures of my boys down at Corinth Church,” Simerly said. “There were pictures that went into Lumpkin County that people found and brought to me.”
At Saturday’s service, tears flowed for Simerly and others as community members shared their memories.
Clermont mayor James E. Nix led the service and shared his memories of that day. Though he wasn’t in Georgia when the storm came through, he felt the pain.
Nix’s family was still in the area, but he was over 600 miles away in Washington, D.C., working with the Department of Agriculture. He said he could only call family to check on them, but even that was hard at times because technology then wasn’t like it is today.
“When it’s hitting your family like that, it really works on you,” Nix said. “You’re trying to do your job, but family is so far away. And we didn’t have all these phones back then. It was hard.”
Kit Walker was only in fifth grade at what is now Mount Vernon Exploratory at the time of the tornado. He didn’t have much to say during the service, but he wanted to be there for Austin Simerly, the little boy he called his “breakfast buddy.”
“Ever since that day, for 20 years, I think about him,” Walker said. “I wanted to offer my condolences to those of the Simerly family, and let y’all know I still think about Austin.”
Images and video of what was left behind after the tornado played on the two TVs in the Clermont Chattahoochee Center. It was hard for some people to watch, but others recognized the areas and actually smiled at thoughts that came to mind.
If there was a common theme to the service, it was unity. Scott Cagle, director of the Office of Planning and Preparedness at the Department of Juvenile Justice and a former Hall Fire Services official, spoke of how much he saw the community and state come together at such a difficult time. He closed by challenging everyone to get out and help others on the anniversary every year.
“It was awesome to see us coming together,” Cagle said. “We did it as a family. We were unified. We worked together.”