The catastrophic destruction at the car dealerships on Christy Drive became an emblem of the May 22 tornado that hit Jefferson City.
But the family behind Riley Toyota and Riley Chevrolet Buick GMC didn't spend much time dwelling on what they had lost. Their drive was to restore service to customers and take care of the community that was taking care of them.
"My family, my brothers, my partners, we're not heroes. We're just blessed to live in a community that we feel like we're a part of that cares for people in many different ways," co-owner Kevin Riley — who owns the dealerships with his brothers, Carey Riley and Mike Riley — said in response to the "Heroes of the Storm" recognition. "The prayers and support have been unbelievable, and that's helped me get through."
That doesn't mean the night of May 22 and the following days weren't trying.
Riley, who lives a couple miles from the tornado's path, left his basement to look outside when he thought the storm had passed.
"I saw what I was hoping I didn't see," he recalled. "I could see back towards town, and I could see the flashes. I saw the horizon, and then I saw this V-shaped dark cloud and the ceiling, so all the flashing I was seeing was the outside of the funnel.
"I said to myself, 'I hope that's not the tornado. I hope that's not the tornado.' It was probably hitting the Chevrolet store about that time."
About 20 minutes later, he learned the tornado had touched down at Christy Drive and Ellis Boulevard. He surveyed damage along its path and drove under downed power lines as he made his way to the dealerships.
"My first concern was I knew there were renters there in a two-story old farmhouse right next to the Toyota store," he said.
After making sure that family was OK — they were — he turned his attention to the overturned vehicles and broken glass littering the remains of his business.
"My emotions went from A to Z, and they still do," he said. "I thought about my dad and him building that store. The part that got annihilated was basically the original part of the building. So there were a lot of thoughts about that, thoughts about are we insured well enough, worried about the rest of the community and if people were killed or not.
"Obviously, we all witnessed a true miracle in that no one was killed."
Since that night, it's been a patience-trying process of working with insurance adjusters and relocating and rehabilitating different parts of the business.
The Riley Chevrolet Collision Center reopened just a week and a half after the tornado. Vehicles are being sold again from a double-wide trailer office on the Toyota lot and a temporary Chevrolet dealership on Missouri Boulevard.
The Riley family — both true family members and employees — spent the Sunday after the tornado working with relief organization Samaritan's Purse to clean up two damaged homes in Jefferson City and Cole County.
"For me personally, it helped relieve some of the stress, just getting out and working," Riley said. " I wish we'd had more time to do more of that."
He also hopes he can offer support in the future to any others like him whose businesses suffer a tragedy.
"This whole ordeal, the tornado, has been an education including dealing with insurance companies and adjusters that I really didn't want to be educated in," he said. "But, now that I've been educated, my promise to dealers in the state of Missouri is that if they unfortunately experience this type of disaster, that I'll be there the next day to help them out."
And he's quick to thank those who were there for the Riley family in the storm's aftermath — the dealerships' staff, who have worked tirelessly to clean, repair and relocate; Gov. Mike Parson, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin, who have helped them work with government agencies during the repair process; Anna Marie Knipp, owner of the Missouri Boulevard building the Rileys are leasing as a temporary home for Chevrolet sales; and other competitive dealers in the area for providing service to customers while the Riley service centers were closed.
Other "Heroes of the Storm"
There were nearly 20 individuals and organizations who received plaques Saturday, Aug. 27, 2019, at a ceremony recognizing them as "Heroes of the Storm" for their actions during the May 22 tornado. Read their stories: