Alabama Students Hold Impromptu Memorial

Students gather for an impromptu memorial in Enterprise, Ala. Eight students were killed Thursday when tornadoes hit a high school in Enterprise. President Bush visited the area to survey the damage caused by several tornadoes that ripped through the region.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Yesterday, President Bush visited towns in Alabama and Georgia hit hard by a series of tornadoes. In Enterprise, Alabama the president went to the town's high school, where eight students were killed.

As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, the campus has become a gathering place for students trying to make sense of what happened.

AUDIE CORNISH: Students spent the day wondering in bewildered looking packs amidst the destruction around Enterprise High School. Their cell phones buzz with text messages and they stopped every few feet to grip one another in tight hugs. Members of the show choir huddled at the edge of the parking lot still roped up with bright yellow caution tape.

Mr. JEREMY WILLIS(ph) (Student): As long as we're with the group, I don't care where we are. As long as we're together.

Ms. NORMA BOYD (Student): Because if we're not here, we're just hearing about it and seeing it on the news. So it's better to be here and to see what's going on than to be sitting at home, you know, wondering if the news is right and getting scared for no reason.

CORNISH: Norma Boyd and Jeremy Willis, both 17, say three of their choir mates were among the eight students who died. Both teens have blue and white polka-dotted ribbons pin to their shirts. The ribbons were put together by Mary Wagner(ph), the mother of one of their classmates. Wagner said she already wears yellow ribbons for her son and husband now serving in Iraq. She came up with the blue ribbons to console her daughter.

Ms. MARY WAGNER: Shocked that her friends are gone and, you know, she has no clue where her life goes from here. Her school is gone. Everything she's involved in, you know what I mean, there's no indication of where she goes from here.

(Soundbite of memorial service)

CORNISH: Students who were injured expressed guilt about escaping death. Students who escaped altogether expressed guilt over leaving friends behind. The students needed to reconnect with one another, and soon that need took on the form of an impromptu memorial service.

(Soundbite of memorial service)

CORNISH: There was no plan, just a few hundred kids milling around the parking lot of a playground on the edge of town. The choir barely made it through one verse of the school song before breaking down.

Ms. CHRISTY BURGESS(ph) (Student): This is the first time anybody has ever really wanted to go back to school.

CORNISH: Choir member Christy Burgess.

Ms. BURGESS: This is my senior year. So I have to deal with the fact the whole building is gone. It seems like it was a fortress. It was very invulnerable. And just to know it's been blown apart like it was made out of toothpicks, it's hard to grasp.

CORNISH: The teens traded stories of where and how they rode out the tornado that pounced on the town and tore apart their campus. Parents like Paul Fractor(ph) stayed on the sidelines, content to what their children grieve together.

Mr. PAUL FRACTOR: I think for them it's probably more of seeing each other, comfirming each other, you know, they're still here, and I think for them it's just, you know, after some like that, you notice, you look at their faces and see how they are when they meet each other, it's like, you know, they're saying thank God, basically.

CORNISH: Students say they have not yet begun to cope with what has happened, and they will be even sadder when the actual funerals begin.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Enterprise, Alabama.

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