TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – When Lois Sayer's three daughters returned to their tornado-wrecked childhood home, they mourned the loss of their 88-year-old mother and discovered a few of the irreplaceable keepsakes that will tell the story of their parents' lives.
Across the twister-ravaged South, residents and family members continued picking through the ruins, collecting whatever family treasure or piece of their cherished past they could.
Volunteers used sledgehammers to knock down walls and break concrete so Sayer's daughters could retrieve their father's World War II uniform, complete with his Bronze Star. They found their mother's prized necklace, the one with a shell casing on it that reminded her of the factory where she worked during the war. It was that job that helped their parents build an $8,000 house, which was demolished in the epic Tuscaloosa storm.
"That was a time when ladies first went into the workforce. She was really, really proud to have been a part of the war effort," said Sayer's daughter, Cindy Meyers.
Sayer, whose husband Maurice died four years ago, was killed in the house she had lived in for 62 years.
"We're coping, but it's kind of a state of shock," Meyers said. "It's so surreal. We would love to wake up from this really horrific dream."
Searching through the rubble for sentimental items can help the healing process, said Jerry Rosenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama.
"The more you can get the more you have a continuity of what was there before the trauma," Rosenberg said. "And that's immensely important for the life you're going to rebuild."
Shortly before the tornado struck, Meyers called her mother and told her to get in the hallway. Her mother responded: "I got my helmet," referring to the bicycle helmet she wore in such storms.
The five-bedroom, three-bath house was sturdy, and had survived many storms. But this was the worst storm since the Great Depression, leaving at least 328 people dead — 236 in Alabama alone. Another one of Sayer's daughters, Brenda Dupre, remembered her parents laying the concrete blocks during the home's construction when she was 5-years-old, her dad telling her to get out of the way.
"I always thought that house was the prettiest house on the street," Dupre said. "It's always been home, now we have no home. It's devastating."
But all was not lost.
The sisters found their grandmother's bible, their mother's diamond engagement ring and a scrapbook. They discovered baby photos, her father's antique coin collection, the paintings her mother did and the quilts and afghans she sewed.
"We always wore dresses she made," said Dupre of Mobile, Ala. "She was a good homemaker." As they found items, the sisters would reflect, hug and put the ones they wanted to save in a pile.
In Holt, an area just outside Tuscaloosa, residents and relatives of the dead streamed back to the neighborhood to see what they could salvage.
Some people weren't lucky. Kevin Rice couldn't find anything he owned in the area where his mobile home once was. He's staying at a motel as long as he can afford it, and hasn't even started asking for help, from FEMA or any government agency.
"It's just a hurting feeling," he said. "I don't know what to say or how to act."
Charles Leonard found some family pictures and records that belonged to his late father when he picked through what's left of his 68-year-old mother's home. But he wondered if looters absconded with other valuables before residents were allowed to return.
"The sheriff's department did the best they could, but there were so many" looters, Leonard said.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in Holt contributed to this story.