Construction on new memorial to the Heath High School shooting in McCracken Co. aims for completion by December 20th anniversary date; new monument is in a more public space

Paducah Sun, Sept. 20, 2017

Construction breaks ground on new Heath High memorial

By JOSHUA ROBERTS

It was about 5 p.m. Tuesday when Christina Ellegood used a Caterpillar backhoe loader to officially break ground and signal construction on a new memorial recognizing the deadly 1997 Heath High School shooting.

However, winter looms and the clock is ticking on finishing the project by Dec. 1 -- the all-important 20th anniversary. It's a date Ellegood, the project's catalyst, and other stakeholders intend on meeting.

"It's been overwhelming, the response we've been given as far as donations," McCracken Superintendent Brian Harper told a crowd of local residents, family members, school officials and others at the project site across from Heath Middle School.

"I do believe we're going to meet the deadline of making sure that we have this in place for the families on the anniversary."

Three students -- Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kayce Steger -- died in the shooting. Five others were wounded.

A memorial currently exists at the middle school, but it had fallen in disrepair and wasn't readily accessible to people who wanted to pay respect.

Ellegood successfully lobbied the McCracken school board earlier this year to approve a new monument that integrates some of the existing pieces.

Harper described Ellegood, who is Hadley's sister, as "very instrumental" to the monument process and the visionary behind the effort.

Ellegood said the memorial shows time hasn't erased memories of the fallen.

"It really means a lot to the families and to the victims to know the community still supports us and this is something people have not forgotten," she said.

Representatives from Milner & Orr Funeral Home handed out flowers Tuesday to victims' family members. The Paducah funeral home coordinated services 20 years ago, Ellegood said, removing a "huge" burden from grieving families.

The new monument will include circular brick walls, benches and a stone centerpiece. Names of the victims will be displayed, and the memorial will be illuminated.

The day's groundbreaking brought back sad memories for McCracken County Commissioner Jerry Beyer. He was the assistant coroner in 1997 and spent 12 hours at the crime scene, documenting and collecting evidence alongside law enforcement.

"It was probably the longest day of my life," Beyer said. "The phone would ring, and we would hear that one of the girls had died, or one of the girls had died in surgery.

"I was back here this spring for an awards ceremony for my granddaughter over at the school and I stepped into the lobby, and it was almost like I had a flashback. … I had to stop for a few moments and regain my composure.

"It wasn't post-traumatic stress, but for that moment I felt like I was right back there again."

Beyer worked that day with McCracken Sheriff Jon Hayden, who was a detective at the time. Hayden, too, was at Tuesday's event.

"Never forget (that day)," the sheriff said. "It's hard to come out here, but I felt like I needed to be here. … It doesn't seem like it's been 20 years."

Hayden said the local shooting prompted changes in school security throughout the commonwealth. School resource officers, he said, "were basically created in Kentucky because of this incident."

"That put school administrators' minds at ease, and parents, teachers and students, knowing there is a police officer present in their schools," Hayden said.

He supports the new monument being in a public place.

"It gives the victims and the victims' families the respect that I think they're due based on what they went through," Hayden said. "This needed to be out in the open. It makes all the sense in the world for this to have happened and for it to be brought over here."

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