ST. LOUIS — Annmarie Klein knows she's blessed to have survived the tornado that leveled her family's central Illinois home, and she understands most of the things they lost — the Jacuzzi, 60-inch TVs, diamond jewelry, the convertible and other vehicles — can be replaced.
That's not true for a mint green box that contained three cards — to her, "the most important thing in my house."
The cards swept away by the Nov. 17 twister that ripped through Washington, Ill., were personalized by Klein's brother, Paul McLaughlin, with notes for each of his three children before his 2005 death from colon cancer at age 39.
Klein said her brother, a suburban Boston resident who fought cancer for six years, entrusted her to give the cards in sealed envelopes to his kids someday "so that when he was gone they could still remember their dad."
"I feel like I let him down," an anguished Klein said through tears this week. "I'd do anything to find those cards."
The search has consumed her since the storm bowled into her Tazewell County town. The separation she's experiencing doesn't surprise Bill Benson, administrator of a Facebook group page set up to rejoin folks in the county with property that was whirled away.
"These storms typically have tops of thousands of feet, so theoretically things could be lofted up to that height and carried," said Benson, a photojournalist from Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks area. "I'm sure as farmers go to work their fields next spring, things will continue to be recovered unless they're buried beneath topsoil."
Klein would rather not wait that long, already frayed by the ordeal that began the Sunday she saw the tornado zeroing in on her home and raced with her husband and children to a basement safe room.
"The kids were screaming. We were screaming," she said. As the parents shielded the kids, "we just prayed as a family."
Seconds later, there was silence and sunlight. The Kleins, some still in their pajamas, emerged through their walkout basement and found their home destroyed, the twister having hurled a pickup truck through the living room where the family had been just moments earlier.
"There was that feeling of emptiness, the kind that comes when the kids look at you with faces of complete fear," said Klein, 41.
A couple of days later, while holed up in her family's hotel room, she suddenly remembered the cards her brother gave her. They had been individually wrapped in plastic and tucked inside the box.
The cards were sealed in neon pink and yellow envelopes. Each was designated for one of McLaughlin's children — Brendan, Cameron and Erin, who are now ages 10 to 18.