MOORE, Okla. - Students from a suburban Oklahoma City elementary school destroyed by this week's tornado reunited with their teachers Thursday and collected whatever could be salvaged from the ruins.
Some children carried thank-you cards. A first-grader was eager to see her favourite gym teacher and for a chance to say goodbye for the school year.
It was one of many difficult goodbyes for the city of Moore. Family and friends attended the funeral of a 9-year-old girl who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School — the first since Monday's storm, which killed 24 people.
Students who survived the storm's onslaught at the school and those whose parents had pulled them out of class just before it hit gathered with their teachers at another Moore school that wasn't damaged. Seven children died at Plaza Towers.
Authorities kept journalists at a distance, but Cheryle Dixon, a grandmother of first-grader Crisily Dixon, talked to a reporter about how hard it was for the little girl.
"A lot of tears, a lot of worry about her gym teacher, a lot of worry about a lot of the teachers that she knew, so she just can't believe it," Dixon said.
The father of 7-year-old Crisily had picked her up an hour before the tornado struck when he learned the severity of the approaching storm — a top-of-the-scale EF5 that was on the ground for 40 minutes, according to the National Severe Storm Lab in Norman.
The police and the mayor's office in Oklahoma City both estimate that around 12,000 homes were damaged and destroyed by the storm in the city and to the south in Moore.
After the disaster, when Crisily saw pictures on the news of a car in the hallway that leads to her classroom, "her little face, she just turned pale," Dixon said.
At the same time, Dixon said her granddaughter was looking ahead to second grade in the fall and was hoping a book she needed was fished out of the school's ruins.
"She said, 'What about my book, what about my book? I'm supposed to have it for next year,'" the grandmother said, her eyes filling with tears. "She said, 'I'm supposed to take it to second grade. It was in my desk.' "
Moore Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce said Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary schools will be rebuilt. Briarwood was heavily damaged but no one was killed there.
"And we will reopen and we will have school in August," she said.
Also headed to Thursday's reunion of classmates and students was Carly Ramirez, who held her 4-year-old daughter, Kamrin, in her arms. The small, ponytailed brunette shyly buried her face in her mother's neck, tightly holding two thank-you cards she planned to give her teachers.
In each envelope were two notes: One from Kamrin and one from her mother.
Kamrin also was not at Plaza Towers when the storm hit, having already left her morning preschool class. She rode out the storm in a shelter at her grandfather's home.
The main reason they came, though, Ramirez said was so that Kamrin could see with her own eyes that all her teachers had emerged from the school alive.
"She's asked about her teacher and her book buddy, which is a fifth-grader that goes to the library with her on Wednesdays," Ramirez said.
Gov. Mary Fallin said that as the removal of mountains of debris begins "we are also in a stage of healing." A public memorial service would be held Sunday night at a church, she said.
At Thursday's funeral service, relatives and friends gathered in a chapel in Oklahoma City to remember 9-year-old Antonia Candelaria. Mournful country music played in the chapel, which was adorned with flowers and photos of the smiling girl.
An obituary posted on the funeral home's website said the girl loved to sing — she knew the words to most of the songs on the country radio station her family frequently had on and she would sing along, bringing joy to the house.
The family's remembrance also talked of the "gentle and loving spirit" of a girl whose nickname was "ladybug."
The third-grader recently auditioned to sing in a talent show that would have been held Thursday.
"Tonie always danced, not walked, to the beat of her own drum," the family wrote in her obit. "And she banged her drum very well. She would bang that drum so loud that others could not help but to start dancing to her beat as well."