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Downstate family loses home but recovers priceless photo blown miles away

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On the scene: Tornado aftermath in Washington, Ill.
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Updated: December 21, 2013 6:25AM

WASHINGTON, Ill. — Swirling in the wind and rain that battered the Chicago area Sunday was a picture.

A color family portrait taken in 1994 of Jim and Becky Holthe and their newborn baby, Grant, who died weeks later after heart surgery.

It was snatched into the sky by a tornado that leveled Becky’s home as she hid in the basement about 150 miles southwest of Chicago, in Washington, Ill.

The picture, showing Grant in a black-and-white checkered outfit, traveled across northwest Illinois on the back of winds gusting at nearly 200 mph before landing in a yard outside a company in Bolingbrook, where an employee picked it up. A woman at the office, who asked not to be named, posted the photo on a Facebook page dedicated to the victims of the tornado and their lost belongings.

“I’m so thankful for that,” Becky said.

That photo and some others of her baby boy are “all I have left of him,” she said.

Bill Baldwin, an employee of the Bolingbrook company, was glad his office could help.

The thought of losing the photo for good upset Becky and her daughter, Paige, 16, a competitive cheerleader.

“If Grant were alive, he’d be 18,” Paige said.

Nor was it the only family memory recovered thanks to the kindness of strangers.

A funeral card that Becky kept next to her dad’s ashes landed in the backyard garden of Su-Lin Battersby, who lives near 58th and Kostner, about a mile from Midway Airport, where she works as a customer service supervisor for Southwest Airlines.

Battersby was letting her two dogs out Monday morning when she noticed it.

“At first I was just going to ignore it, thinking it was just a stray piece of paper, but then I saw there was a prayer on one side and that it was laminated,” said Battersby, who noticed that one of the deceased man’s daughter’s was from Washington.

“I’d heard about stuff being found all over Illinois and about this Facebook page,” said Battersby, 33, who also used the site to post a picture of the card.

“I lost my dad a few years a go, and I know how important it would be to me if I was in her shoes. ... It would mean the world to me.” she said. “I’m just kind of amazed it could make it here. It’s just remarkable to me.”

Arrangements are being made to return both heirlooms, but the odds getting either of them back amazed Becky as she stood in front of the rubble of her home Tuesday afternoon.

“I guess it just went up into the vortex of the tornado. ... I guess it just blew,” Becky said.

It was a glimmer of good news during an often bleak day as authorities in Washington acknowledged Tuesday that they had vastly underestimated the number of homes damaged or destroyed, and revised the initial figures of 250 to 500 homes, to upward of 1,000.

On Tuesday, residents were scrambling to save what they could with the threat of rain on Wednesday.

Terry Felix, 55, spent Tuesday scavenging the ruins of her leveled home with her husband, Andy.

“Yesterday was our 34th wedding anniversary, and our cake topper came out in one piece from our destroyed china cabinet,” she said.

Also salvaged were baby pictures, a quilt from her husband’s great-great-grandmother and a camera her mother bought in nursing school.

“Lots of cool things that make your heart feel good,” said Terry Felix, who plans to spend the holidays out of town. “We generally host everything here, but obviously that’s not going to happen.

The couple, who was at church when the tornado struck Sunday, was able to rent a place in town.

“I feel nothing but grateful, so blessed, can’t describe it,” she said.

Meanwhile, gas and electricity were being restored to much of the area, and Washington Mayor Gary Manier said he’d received a call from the consul general of the typhoon ravaged Philippines saying his country would like to send money to the folks of Washington.

“Think about that,” Manier said.

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman

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