Sunset Hills resident Jim Williams was walking down West Watson Road with his neighbor minutes after the category EF3 tornado ripped through Sunset Hills last New Year’s Eve.
He found an American flag from Watson Trail Park in the aftermath, and now that flag is on display in the Sunset Hills Community Center.
“When the aftermath was all said and done, I wanted to take (the flag) back to City Hall to officials of Sunset Hills and the flag was all in a mat and sopping wet, and it wasn’t until the flag was unfolded and dried out that we recognized that the flag was very tethered and torn … It went right through ground zero, so to speak, where the tornado went through.”
A couple days after the tornado hit, Williams said he was carrying the flag in his car and saw Sunset Hills Mayor Bill Nolan outside the police station with the media.
“I kind of pulled in and butted in, ‘Oh, by the way, I want to give you back something,'” Williams said.
Nolan said the significance of the flag for the community is that it would not let the weather determine its fate.
“(The tornado) tried, but it couldn’t destroy it,” Nolan said, “and no more than the tornado can destroy the flag, it couldn’t destroy the spirit of Sunset Hills. Sunset Hills is a remarkable community.”
Remembering the day
Former Sunset Hills resident Tony Tumminia, now of South St. Louis, and his family unveiled the flag at Saturday’s ceremony, then Tumminia presented Nolan with a framed photo collage and recounted what happened to his family, and the community, last New Year’s Eve.
All but the foundation of Tumminia’s home was destroyed, and Tumminia, his father, Joe, and Tony Tumminia’s wife and 6-month-old son, hid in a space that was created due to an addition on the house.
“Immediately after we finished talking about the area, the lights began to flicker, then the lights when out,” Tony Tumminia said. “Pressure began to build and suddenly I remember(ed) what my dad had just said about the little area. Quickly, I led my family into the area in hopes that my dad’s idea held true.”
Joe Tumminia said he knew if something happened, the family should move to a smaller area, rather than the more open space they were in before.
“I was worried about my family because I had a little grandson and my daughter-in-law all there, so I was getting worried about them, and then when it hit, I was even more worried,” Joe Tumminia said.
The Tumminia family made it through the tornado with no major injuries, but the house was destroyed.
“The entire structure except for the foundation walls was gone … But everything that truly mattered was present and accounted for,” Tony Tumminia said.
As Tony Tumminia’s reading neared its end, he thanked the Lord for keeping his family safe last New Year’s Eve.
“The Lord prepared a place for my family all those years ago when the addition was added on,” Tony Tumminia said. “He gave my father a gift of knowledge just at the right moment, to fulfill that small room’s purpose.”
Meaning of the commemoration
The commemoration of the flag shows that both the flag and the city of Sunset Hills survived the tornado, according to Joe Tumminia, and he wanted to attend the ceremony to say, ‘Thank you.’
“So many people in the community helped us that I wanted to be here to say, ‘Thank you,’ to a lot of them if I (saw them) again … because I feel like it was more because my son lived here; I was just visiting,” Joe Tumminia said. “I was at the wrong place at the right time, I guess you would say, but I want to thank them for helping him.”
Nolan said he knew Tony Tumminia planned to present something at the ceremony but did not know what it was.
“That was a total surprise, a total surprise, and I think it’s wonderful,” Nolan said. “I think he did a very, very nice job, and we were very, very happy to see him and his spouse and that little guy ride that storm out with his dad.”
Sunset Hills resident Rose Garland’s house was not hit by the tornado — she and her husband, Drew, live about two blocks from where the tornado hit — but she said the flag’s commemoration represents survivorship.
“Every time I think about the flag and what it stands for, it just it’s so heartwarming,” Garland said, “and to see all these people here to honor that flag and say, ‘Thanks,’ to all the people who have done so much for this community, we’re not a big community, but we have a lot of great things that go on in Sunset Hills.”
Protecting and preparing the flag
From the moment Williams saw the flag, he knew it needed to go back to its rightful owners.
“When I saw it down, it was just a matter of, it occurred to us before it occurred to someone else (that) the flag needed to be protected,” Williams said.
In part with protecting the flag, Williams also helped pay for it to be displayed at the Sunset Hills Community Center through his company, Sunset Transportation.
“I think the nice symbolic thing is that people, for a long-term time to come, can recognize what happened New Year’s Eve in Sunset Hills,” Williams said.
Williams said the commemoration is a collaboration of what Nolan thought would be a good thing to do.
“Clearly, the flag (was) in a state where it couldn’t fly (and) should be properly destroyed if it wasn’t going to be used,” Williams said. “I think that a good thought came to mind and it serves a very good purpose for a long time to come.”
Affton resident Vicki Rolf, who was in California when the tornado hit Sunset Hills, said the flag will always be a reminder of what happened.
“I think that’s a very neat idea,” Rolf said. “I just think it’s symbolic of what happened last year, and thankfully nobody got hurt in this area.”
Williams was unable to attend the commemoration due to previous obligations in southern Florida.
“I’ve done my part,” Williams said. “I think the important thing is (that this was a) great thing to be able to do. (We) live in great community; those are the things that matter the most.”