The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tornadoes killed her grandparents. Eight strangers helped her save their photos.

Judy and Billy Miller were killed in last week’s tornadoes in Kentucky. (Matt Burns)
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The tornadoes took everything when they barreled through Judy and Billy Miller’s house in Kentucky, leaving just a ring of cinder blocks.

But their photos — documenting a 56-year marriage cut short — survived.

A farmer in Indiana found a picture of the Millers as young parents. A 50th anniversary photo blew upstate. A black-and-white childhood portrait flew more than 100 miles to Louisville, where Ellen Sears went to the park Saturday to take in a stormy sunrise. Soon Sears spotted something nestled in the grass that “just didn’t belong” — a girl’s photo, labeled “Judy,” somehow unscathed.

Sears shared the picture at 6:39 p.m. in a rapidly growing Facebook group called “Quad State Tornado Found Items.” The Millers’ granddaughter, 25-year-old Haley Burton, saw the photo quickly.

“My Nana,” she wrote in the comments at 7:19 p.m. She had just recognized another lost photo that turned up in a backyard in Jeffersonville, Ind.: “This is me.”

The pictures kept surfacing Sunday, as eight strangers scattered around two states found the same Facebook group and helped Burton’s family save what they could from their lost loved ones. The sprawling effort showcased both the storm’s ferocity and the community that united in its wake.

“It gives me a lot of hope,” said Burton, who leaned on her grandparents as a teenager after her mother died. “With all the bad we have going on in the world … there are still great people out there that want these families to have these memories.”

Prom photo, baby pic: Strangers find family mementos miles away from tornado wreckage

The Millers were found side by side at their property on the outskirts of Bremen, Burton said. Billy, 73, was a veteran who worked as a laborer for a while before running the family farm, she said. Judy, 72, was a homemaker. The couple renewed their vows a few years ago, re-creating their wedding.

“There was no other love like theirs,” Burton said.

Burton was pregnant during the renewal, and she remembers her grandparents rubbing and poking her stomach throughout the night, trying to get the baby to kick. It didn’t work.

But as soon as Burton got home, her daughter kicked for the first time.

“That little turd,” her grandma said when she heard the news.

A dozen people were killed in Bremen, Ky., home to just a couple hundred people. At least 74 people were killed across Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said Monday afternoon.

Burton talked to her grandmother about 8:30 p.m. Friday. “We’re fine,” she remembers Judy Miller saying. “The wind’s blowing a little bit.” She promised to call the next day so Burton would know they were safe.

But later that night, Burton’s sister messaged that the couple was not answering their phone. Soon a cousin called, saying the family farm down the road from the Millers was hit. “All the barns are gone,” she said.

“They’ve always said they would ride it out,” said Burton, who lives about 55 miles southeast in Franklin, Ky.

She believes they were trying to get to a safer place, maybe the basement in her uncle’s house, when the tornado struck. She traveled to the Bremen area this weekend, eager to be with family, but headed back to Franklin, Ky., on Monday, unsettled.

“It was breaking my heart that I couldn’t go to my grandparents’ house and stay there,” she said. “So I decided I needed to come home.”

Burton’s family has already endured great loss. Burton’s mother died when Burton was 16, she said, after going into a diabetic coma. Her uncle died young as well, and one of her sisters was stillborn. When the Millers renewed their vows, pictures of all three sat on a table, as if they were attending.

Burton said her grandparents were her “rocks” after her mother died. “They were literally the glue that held my family together.” She said she called them every day.

She saw how painful it was for her grandmother to bury two of her children.

“I know they’re all together again,” she said, her voice wavering. “And that helps me.”

The family was able to recover some items in Bremen, she said: A locket. A baby quilt. Her grandpa’s toy tractor collection (“They were both lovers of John Deere”).

But the photos — most of them irreplaceable — were spread far and wide. One wound up with Matt Burns, a 41-year-old in Elizabeth, Ind., who did not realize until a reporter called that the Millers had died.

“If I had lost everything, any little thing that would help bring back some memories and hold on to those memories would probably be very helpful,” Burns said Monday. He plans to mail the picture soon.

For Sears, a 63-year-old retired educator, the discovery felt especially fateful. She walks the same path each morning at the wetlands park beloved by her husband who died of cancer about five years ago. “It was my healing place,” she said.

She learned the Millers had died through Facebook comments.

“I hated the universe and loved the universe with such intensity,” she said. “I hated what had happened. I just loved that we could get something back to these families.”

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