MOORE, Okla. — Hours after Monday’s tornado plowed through town, volunteers who had helped with search-and-rescue operations began pouring into a makeshift shelter carrying boxes and bags of valuables — precious links to lives that had just been shredded by disaster:
Hundreds of photographs, a smiling elderly couple, a mother holding a newborn. There was a letter from an apologetic husband to his wife, birthday cards, a will. And most wrenching of all, dozens of student photos from Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died when their school crumbled on top of them.
Chaplain Rebekah Williams, a volunteer from Sulphur, Okla., knew the ravaged images needed to be protected and mobilized a crew of volunteers for the delicate task of hand cleaning each piece of memorabilia.
Carefully, Becky Haberly and others began wiping off mud, grass and twigs from hundreds of pictures and laying them on a folding table to dry inside the Moore Community Center turned American Red Cross shelter just blocks from the wreckage.
"That’s all they have left. A lot of these people lost everything," Haberly said. "They don’t have a home standing. All they have left are the pictures that people have found."
The volunteers meticulously took cloths dampened with filtered water and gently dabbed scores of paper packed with pixels and stamped with memories — a peek into the lives now suffering in disaster.
Some images marked important events: a happy couple waiting to wed, a class picture from 1952.
There was the large photo of a mother with curly brown hair holding a newborn in her arms. The husband towered over the two with a perfect smile.
"You could tell they were a happy family," Haberly said.
One man brought a bag full of pictures, including one that jolted the cleaning crew.
"He had a photo of the aftermath of the tornado from May 3, 1999," Haberly said. "The destruction looked just the same."
The 40-year-old Haberly focused on the faces — cleaning them as well as she could.
"So people can recognize the photo and at least have that," she said.
Then there was that one bag. The volunteers set it aside, at first because it was just too sensitive. Inside were 25 photos recovered from the Plaza Towers Elementary School.
"We finally went through them," Haberly said. Her eyes welled up and she paused. "There were a lot of school photos in that baggie."
The volunteers remained silent cleaning that batch. Some of photos were dated, many with the 2012-2013 school year.
A photo ripped in half featured this year’s second-grade class. Many were individual elementary school snapshots. Boys. Girls. Blond hair and blue eyes. Brown hair. Redheads. Freckled children. Most smiling.
"You could tell that their mama worked hard before they left for school that morning, making sure each piece of hair was in its place, that they were clean for their pictures," Haberly said.
The recovery effort was not all sad. One photo showed a woman making a funny face with a sticker quote that read, "Don’t you wish you were as crazy as I?"
"We laughed for hours on that one," Haberly said and belted out a chuckle.
It’s unclear how many mementos the volunteer crew cleaned.
"I know it was hundreds of hundreds. The stack just kept growing," Haberly said.
There were also other items in the pile of photos. Legal documents, birth certificates, a death certificate from 1982. Anniversary cards. One husband wrote to his wife, "I’m sorry I couldn’t get you an anniversary gift. I promise when I see you again, I will."
The crew stopped their work and carefully packed the remaining soiled images in a box when they heard a professional photo service would donate their time and take over the duty.
The American Red Cross hopes to turn over the stacks of pictures to local authorities who can get them back to their rightful owners, a spokesman said.
Haberly said she focused on saving even a partial image. That owner could hang on to it, Haberly said, and hopefully move forward.