ROCK HILL, S.C. — Sharon Courtney came to an old South Carolina schoolhouse on a cold December night to try to find memories of her husband Steve, who was killed last month when a tornado tore their home apart.
Sifting through piles of muddied photos, crushed papers, and mangled tools gathered by volunteers, the 55-year-old church pianist found a tattered piece of paper that was a faded anniversary card sent by her in-laws to celebrate her two-year wedding anniversary in 1978.
"How about that? Isn't that marvelous?" she said, a bit of wonder in her voice, showing the signature she recognized from her late husband's father, who had passed away a month before the storm.
"Now he's in heaven with his dad," Courtney said. "Christmas isn't going to be easy, but we'll get through it."
Courtney's husband was among six killed in three states by a severe weather system that struck the South late last month. It was among the final deadly gasps of a devastating year of tornadoes that killed hundreds in Missouri, Alabama and elsewhere.
In the aftermath of the deadly storms, all sorts of odd lost-and-founds have helped survivors cope and communities rebuild. In Alabama, a Facebook page connected people with personal items flung miles away by April twisters, while workers in Missouri carefully cleaned and sorted 27,000 photos buried or blown away when a tornado devastated Joplin in May.
In South Carolina, Courtney said it was hard to search through the piles of personal items gathered by members of her small, rural community, but it also showed the kindness of strangers.
"We've all become a family," Courtney said of the rescue workers and volunteers gathered at the school house.
The old building became a collection point because it was located next to the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department, whose firefighters were among the first to respond when the 135 mph tornado hit down the road. An area meteorologist has also used his blog to help people track personal items and explain the physics behind their long journeys.
The funnel cloud touched down over several miles and blew apart eight houses, damaged 20 others, tore metal farm sheds off their foundations and twisted trees like pipe cleaners.
York County Coroner Sabrina Gast, who worked all night to locate the dead and wounded, has since banded with the firefighters and local volunteers to collect personal items and return them to their owners. Tornado victims were invited to peruse the items, organized in paper bags by where they were found.
"We hope they can find something, and get a little bit back of what they lost," says Gast, standing amid the piles turned in over the past three weeks.
Sue Ferrell Clark, 58, showed a pile of dirtied bills, letters and portraits of her grandchildren that she'd collected. Portraits of her elderly parents were intact, still inside a mud-splashed plastic frame.
She laughed at a faded photo from her wedding 25 years ago. "That's my ex-husband," she said with a laugh. Her elderly parents survived the storm under a couch as the storm's winds whipped the roof off their home.
"The Lord was really looking after them," she said. "But I haven't found my laptop yet," she added ruefully.
Firefighter Capt. Tim Mills and his wife Amber used Facebook and put out word through the department's women's auxiliary to organize the school house gathering.
"I'm just hoping that everybody can find something, something to take back, because there's some things they lost they can't never get back," said Mills.
"There's still a lot left," said his wife, 25. "At least everybody who came tonight found some stuff."
As the collection is diminished, it also grows.
Anthony Johnson, 58, of Rock Hill, came by to drop off some torn bits of wedding pictures he'd found in his front yard.
"At first, I didn't know what it was from, and then I realized, the storm!" said Johnson, who lives about three miles away. "It really makes you realize how blessed you are, because with that storm, it could have been you."
Chief meteorologist Brad Panovich of WCNC-TV in Charlotte, more than 20 miles away, has been keeping track of the tornado debris.
His blog displays a picture of a canceled check belonging to Courtney that was found about 25 miles away in Ballantyne, N.C., south of Charlotte, and mailed back to her. She said she was "very pleased" to have gotten it.
"It is common for lightweight materials to be carried long distances after a tornado lifts," Panovich wrote on his blog, noting that some items were found in Tennessee after the tornadoes in Alabama earlier this year.
Tracking such debris has a dual use because it helps scientists understand how storms lift and carry items as they whip back upward in the sky, the meteorologist said.
"Not only does this help reunite people with their lost possessions. It helps us to understand the power of tornados and how the wind and debris they lift behaves after the tornado lifts," Panovich said.