A year ago, Roy Crump III was beneath a pile of rubble, wondering if he was going to make it out alive after a tornado ripped through his high school.
On Thursday night, he graduated along with 350 classmates as one of the valedictorians at Enterprise High School. He even got to shake hands with first lady Laura Bush.
"I think it was a miracle that I survived," Crump said of the tornado last year that killed eight of his classmates and left him with a broken bone in his back.
The first lady told the graduating seniors their hardest challenge was creating a normal high school.
"This class has had a long journey to get here," said Bush, who was wearing a blue graduation gown. "While other students around the country were worrying about who they were going to take to the dance, you were sifting through the rubble."
For Crump, his high school experience changed that day when he crouched in the same corridor where his classmates were killed.
"I was stuck under a locker and some of the roof and my back hurt," Crump said. "I was just hoping to get out."
Like most other Enterprise students who experienced the horror of March 1, 2007, Crump said he has recovered physically and mentally and is ready to get on with his life. He plans to attend Auburn University this fall.
"Life is back to normal here," Crump said, sitting in a downtown Enterprise ice cream parlor with his grandparents several hours before Thursday night's graduation. "Everybody recovered so quickly. That's what's amazing."
Students have been attending classes at a nearby community college, many in about 40 portable buildings set up around the campus. Students have often attended classes until 5 p.m. this year instead of the normal 3 p.m. ending time for most schools and some have complained that they did not get the same breaks between classes as at their old school, which meant less time to meet with friends.
Construction is scheduled to start this year on a new high school.
Bush gave her speech at the high school football stadium, next to the empty lot where the high school used to stand. Construction workers have been busy next door, building a new elementary school to replace one destroyed by the same tornado that hit the high school.
Another stark reminder of the tornado was four empty chairs, each holding a graduation gown in memory of the four graduating class members that were killed in the storm.
Bush said despite the tragedy, Enterprise students continued to excel in the classroom and on athletic fields, listing a number of academic honors and athletic wins.
"You came through the tragedy by bringing positive change to your school and your community," Bush said.
Another valedictorian, Nicholas McQueen, told the audience that the tornado in one moment changed the entire high school experience.
"Suddenly nothing was routine and nothing was comfortable," he said.
The first lady's visit is one in a series of special moments for Enterprise students since the tornado. At the prom last year, the food was prepared by television host Rachel Ray and pop singer Mandy Moore performed several songs. Personal messages from President Bush were read to students at last year's commencement exercises and at a memorial service on the one-year anniversary of the storm.