Holding on to hope: Photo emerges of 9-year-old Missouri victim just before tornado hit
Caruthersville, Missouri - The damage after some of the most devastating tornadoes the US has ever seen is immense. While cleanup is ongoing since they hit on Friday, many are mourning the loss of their family members and children.
Kentucky's governor confirmed at least 74 victims were killed earlier this week as the tornadoes barreled through five states.
But a particular photo that has now caused even more sadness nationwide.
Annistyn Rackley, a 9-year-old from the rural southeast "Bootheal" region of Missouri, took shelter with her family in their home's designated "safe place" from storms – a windowless bathroom.
Minutes before the tornado hit, she was photographed lying in the bathtub, smiling and clutching her favorite baby doll tightly next to her sisters Alanna (3) and Avalinn (7).
Her mother sent the photo via Snapchat to her aunt Sandra Hooker. It has now been shared with the world as a beacon of innocence and in honor of one of the youngest victims of the storm.
"They were sucked up into the tornado," Hooker told the Associated Press. "Their house is splintered … there’s debris strewn forever out in the field."
Annistyn did not survive, but rescue workers found the prized baby doll that she was holding in the photo in a nearby field, which she called Baby MawMaw.
Nine-year-old Annistyn is among the youngest tornado victims in the US
Hooker called her great-niece a "special angel" who remained active and full of life through gymnastics and cheerleading despite a rare liver condition she'd battled since birth.
Annistyn's sisters, Avalinn and Alana, suffered several broken vertebrae in their backs due to the tornado, but are recovering along with their father.
"I was flying around in the tornado and I prayed to Jesus to take care of me, and he spit me out," 7-year-old Ava told hospital officials. "The tornado spit me out into the mud."
Their mother, a kindergarten teacher, is still unresponsive in the hospital with broken bones, a collapsed lung, and a brain injury.
The family had only moved to their new house from nearby Caruthersville one week ago. They were not yet fully unpacked.
Cover photo: Imago/UPI Photo