With Gov. Robert Bentley standing behind him, slightly to his left, 22-year-old Tommy Quinn sits down at an old donated Packard organ on the front porch of the house volunteers are rebuilding for his family in Hackleburg.
The bottoms of the wooden instrument are chipped, but the harmonies that emerge as Quinn plays “Amazing Grace,” swiftly moving his fingers along the keys, bring tears to onlookers’ eyes.
When he finishes, Bentley applauds him, looks to one of the people in the crowd and happily remarks, “That was great, wasn’t it?”
Before visiting the site on which the Quinns’ future home will be built — just feet from the storage unit in which they currently reside — Bentley toured the newly-rebuilt Phil Campbell Church of God on Thursday morning.
Pastor Chris Burns said he’d sent an invitation to Bentley’s office, explaining what the town and the church itself has experienced in the past year after the tornadoes of April 27, 2011.
Bentley agreed to come.
“What I’m most proud of is that it’s a community place,” Burns said of the church. “Yes, we worship God here. But I’m mostly proud that God is allowing us to use it for the community.”
Bentley, who visited Phil Campbell and Hackleburg in the first days after the storms, said he was amazed at the progress made in the towns.
“Y’all have done a wonderful job,” he told the church. “I remember the first time I was here and how devastated it was. I’m very proud of the entire state ... everywhere I’ve been, there’s been tremendous progress.
“This area has done a fantastic job.”
Bentley said the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that long-term recovery should take between five and 10 years. However, he said he knew the people of Alabama would recover more quickly.
“The people of this state have a work ethic that is somewhat unparalleled,” he said. “Am I surprised at the progress? No, not really. That’s the kind of people we have.”
Before attending the official ground-breaking ceremony at the site of the Wrangler plant in Hackleburg, Bentley stopped by the memorial Phil Campbell will unveil Saturday.
He shook hands with 12-year-old Omar Mojica and his father Gilberto, who lost two family members to the tornado in Phil Campbell: Claudia and Edgar Mojica, Omar’s mother and brother.
“I’m sad that my family isn’t here with us,” Omar said. “I miss them a lot.”
He said all of the memorial services being held for tornado victims are getting a bit overwhelming.
“It’s overwhelming, but it’s nice to have my mother and brother recognized,” he said.
Gilberto Mojica does not speak English.
“It’s not only the people of Phil Campbell who have helped us, but everyone who has heard about our situation has helped,” Omar translated for his father. “We thank them a lot.”
Bentley said it will take a while before things are completely restored, but he does see slow, steady progress.
“Any natural disaster recovery has to come from the bottom, not the top,” he said, referring to the fact that residents must first have a desire to see their towns restored.
At the ground-breaking ceremony for the site of the Wrangler plant in Hackleburg, at least 200 people gathered, including a 13-year Wrangler employee who had mixed feelings about rebuilding a new plant.
“It’s never going to be the same,” James Counts said. “Building a new plant will be like getting a new job.”
Counts said when he saw that the plant had been demolished, he was in shock.
“The whole town was destroyed,” he said.
Bentley acknowledged the state has gone through a tough year.
“We have a long way to go, but of all the things I’ve seen happen, this (ground breaking) today is probably one of if not the most important things to have happened,” he said. “Without Wrangler coming back, what would have happened to Hackleburg?”
Hannah Mask can be reached at 256-740-5728 or hannah.mask@TimesDaily.