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For many Salt Lake City residents, the reality of the twister that slammed their city on Aug. 11, 1999, struck home when they saw the devastation of Memory Grove Park east of the Utah State Capitol. "It was a strange day; the sky was strange. The atmosphere was all kind of green," said John Jansen, who was in his home on Canyon Road just south of the Memory Grove entrance when the tornado hit at 12:45 p.m. "I could see stuff swirling around outside. I thought it was microburst winds and I didn't think too much about it. Afterward and outside, people were running up and down the street. It was surreal."

Then he looked at the park.

"It was sickening," he said. "There were two little trees still standing and several hundred that were completely flat."

Compared with the barn busters of Tornado Alley, the Salt Lake tornado's damage was relatively minor. While homeowners who lost roofs and automobiles may disagree, the canyon where Memory Grove has been a park since 1902 bore the brunt of the storm's fury.

In the end, the storm proved a boon to the park. With most of the area escaping major damage, people focused their labor, and their money, on Memory Grove.

As a result, several "random" monuments were moved to more appropriate parks, and drought-tolerant trees and plants were used to restore damage to the Grove. Funds also were found for new lighting in the park, increasing use and giving it a more family-friendly atmosphere.

"I often wonder what would have happened to Memory Grove if the tornado had not happened," said Mark Vlasic, principal architect for the company hired to handle the restoration process.

Violent event » Numbers vary, but according to the Utah Heritage Foundation -- which manages Memorial House in the park -- the tornado destroyed 412 trees and damaged another 66.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, then a state legislator, was at the Boise airport when he heard about the twister. Becker's flight arrived in Salt Lake City after dark and he scrambled to his neighborhood, not knowing what to expect.

"I could not drive to my house. All the power was out, roads were blocked. I parked near the Capitol and felt my way down the hill toward my house. I realized I was climbing over trees," Becker recalled. "At first light the next morning, I got up and saw the devastation -- it just made me cry. Memory Grove, our house, and virtually every house in our neighborhood had been hit."

Memory Grove quickly became a focal point. Jansen and other members of the Memory Grove Foundation already were planning to raise money to restore monuments there. Their efforts took on new meaning in the days after the tornado.

"We just didn't expect to take on a project of the magnitude it ended up being," said Jansen, 69, a Canyon Road resident for 37 years. "We suddenly had a lot of help. There was an enormous amount of feeling for the park and people were involved overnight. All kinds of money came in, ranging from kids giving us very small donations to $100,000 from an anonymous single donor."

Within a week, more than 550 people came from Tooele to West Valley City to Riverton to work in the park. Off-duty military personnel and police officers joined the effort. More than $1.3 million was raised by the city and county, local residents, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Tree Utah and others.

New trees thriving » More than 400 new trees, representing 44 species, and other plants were eventually placed on the grounds of Memory Grove. The new plants, many of them drought-tolerant, are doing well, according to Salt Lake City forester Bill Rutherford.

"It looks a lot different than it did before the tornado and it will take some time, but it will eventually be similar to the way it was," he said. "It was such a heartbreaking thing to see all those trees, which had been there for 40 or 50 years, laying on their sides like whales out of water. It was pretty obvious that one of the greatest values of that park was the trees."

Rutherford said maples planted after the tornado are now in the 22-foot range. The redwood tree varieties are approaching 25 feet.

Many of the old trees lost in the tornado were planted by American Gold Star Mothers in memory of sons lost during World War I.

"As sad as it was to see it devastated like that, it was great to see people do something special and try to make the park even better," Rick Graham, director of public services for Salt Lake City, said of the response after the tornado. "It became an opportunity to change things at Memory Grove and everybody played an important part in what the park is today."

Anniversary party

The Utah Heritage Foundation is hosting a free party to celebrate the volunteer spirit that restored Memory Grove Park.

When » The event is Aug. 11, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Memory Grove.

What's you'll see » Vidphotos of the tornado will be displayed and children can join in a scavenger hunt. Tours of the Meditation Chapel will be offered by volunteers who were in the building when the tornado struck and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker will speak.