It could have been a parade.
Children held balloons. Parents pulled wagons. Spectators applauded.
As crowds gathered at the Duquesne roundabout on East 20th Street, people in bright blue T-shirts handed out pinwheels, stress balls and bubble wands.
But they also handed out tissues.
Despite the smiles and photographs and festival-like atmosphere, those who participated in the Walk of Unity on Tuesday afternoon, from Duquesne to Joplin’s Cunningham Park, were well aware of its purpose. The route followed the path of the historic 2011 tornado.
“I woke up with a knot in my throat this morning,” said Tammy Niederhelman, who walked in memory of her son, Zachary Allen Williams.
The 12-year-old was one of 161 people whose deaths were attributed to the May 22, 2011, tornado. He was in the bathtub when the tornado hit their house. He died instantly.
Niederhelman walked the route with family members, each wearing a T-shirt with a photo of the deceased East Middle School student. They carried flowers meant to be placed at a cross at 20th Street and Texas Avenue, where the boy died.
By contrast, Duquesne Mayor Denny White, sporting a “Duquesne round-a-bouters” T-shirt and a straw hat, was all smiles as he prepared to begin the walk and paused to speak of the courage and dedication of his town.
Of the approximately 750 homes in Duquesne, 450 had some sort of damage, including more than 200 that were demolished. Nine people died in the storm in Duquesne.
Most of the damaged homes have been repaired, and building permits have been issued for projects to replace many of the homes that were destroyed.
“It’s a happy day for us,” said White, whose business was destroyed and rebuilt. “We made it through a tough year.”
He described the walk as “an uplifting experience. It shows you what a little town can do if we put our minds to it.”
Duquesne resident and storm survivor Cindy Sundy offered a unique perspective as she began the walk: “May 22 last year was the best day of my life. Because it could have been the worst day, and it wasn’t.”
She and her family rode out the tornado as it leveled their home at East 24th Street and Duquesne Road. They have rebuilt on the same spot. “We made the decision when we were staring at what was left,” Sundy said.
About a half-mile into the walk on East 20th Street, Gary Doolen, a Duquesne resident who was severely injured in the storm, handed out bottled water to walkers in front of his newly built apartment.
“I’m still healing,” said Doolen, who suffered a crushed spleen and two broken ribs, and had pieces of a cellphone taken out of his back after the tornado. “It’s been a long year.”
He was employed by the Missouri Department of Transportation. His injuries and subsequent pneumonia and bronchitis made it necessary for him to retire early.
New Joplin High School graduate Jarred English walked toward South Range Line Road wearing a shirt bearing the slogan “Proud Graduate of Northpark Mall.”
Three hours after the tornado leveled many of his friends’ homes, the 18-year-old National Guardsman went to work in recovery efforts. He will leave for training soon at Fort Jackson, S.C., but during the walk he reflected on how much his community means to him.
“When I’m done with training, my permanent unit will be in Joplin and I’ll be coming home,” he said.
When the walkers reached the parking lot of the 15th Street Wal-Mart, employees with SNC Squared, a systems network computer consulting firm, posed for photos in matching Hawaiian shirts. Earlier in the day, they had celebrated their store’s new location at 26th Street and Jackson Avenue, and they planned to walk the route back to it.
Noting the festival-like atmosphere, SNC employee Jared Wilkinson said he believes people are “glad to see progress has been made.”
A contingent of 78 Dillons grocery store chain employees from across the Four-State Area wore matching T-shirts with “Dillons” emblazoned on the back. The Joplin store at 1402 E. 20th St. was destroyed in the tornado.
Corporate spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie said Dillons is “looking forward to coming back to Joplin. We are still considering options.”
Four former employees of Greenbriar Nursing Home, wearing matching tie-dye T-shirts, were walking in memory of the 11 residents and one employee lost in the tornado when it bore down on 2502 S. Moffet Ave.
“We ran the 5K last Saturday in their memory, too,” said one of the group, Jessica Bradham. They all have relocated to other employment, but they try to get together at least once a month and stay connected via a Greenbriar Facebook page.
“This was our family that we lost,” Bradham said. “We considered them that.”
As the group traveled west, Dan Rees, who uses a wheelchair, propelled himself along by his own arm power.
“My niece and her husband lost their house off of 26th Street, and I have been heavily involved in the Stained Glass Theatre, where we lost three people,” Rees said. “I’m doing this largely in support of that.”
Dotting the entire route, members of the Joplin club Kites Over Route 66 kept their kites in the air. On May 22 last year, they were flying their kites when someone heard a report that a storm was coming. They headed home and escaped injury.
As the group passed Optical Outlet at 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue, Pam and George Lockwood watched from in front of the business they chose to rebuild at the same location. It opened earlier this year.
Walkers paused to take pictures of a sign on their message board that read: “161 prayers have been sent to Heaven.”
In a now-cleared lot on West 20th Street, Michelle Hare and a group of friends and family members paused for a moment at a homemade memorial for her son, Lantz Hare, a 16-year-old who would have graduated Monday night.
“His body was found here,” his mother said. “We will finish the end of the walk. We just meet here sometimes; it is a place to sit and remember him.”
The group passed by the steeple raising at the Joplin LDS Stake Center, 2200 S. Indiana Ave., where the sounds of some crowd members singing “How Great Thou Art” silenced the walkers. The hymn mingled with distant sounds of cadences by the Joplin High School drumline, playing to the west near the site of their former school.
Walkers funneled between a fleet of Joplin school buses to a groundbreaking ceremony there for a new high school.
Standing at 1318 W. 26th St., where the Stained Glass Theatre was leveled by the tornado, Judy Korn and Lucy Pendergraft looked over the memorial to Randy Mell: a single rose in a makeshift vase made of a plastic water bottle held upright by stones.
They had been Mell’s co-workers at the Jasper County Courthouse and were among fellow employees wearing navy blue shirts with the message: “In Memory of Randy Mell: Nov. 15, 1961 - May 22, 2011.”
Mell had attended a performance at the theater on May 22, 2011, and was inside, holding the door to the basement for everyone in the building, when the tornado leveled it.
As the walkers crested the hill on West 26th Street in front of the remaining shell of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, volunteers with Convoy of Hope handed out water bottles just as they did in the weeks after the storm.
And at the top of the hill, medical staff members applauded walkers and shouted words of encouragement as the walk neared its end.
“We came out to cheer this group, because people cheered us on, too,” said surgery nurse Kathy Wrensch, dressed in scrubs, as she wiped away a tear.
“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” she said. “We’re in for the long haul. It’s not easy, but we’re getting there.”
GLOBE INTERN KEVIN GILMAN contributed to this report.