Two days after a tornado took her sister's life in April, Michelle Downs Whatley crossed the stage at her own college graduation wearing her lost sister's shoes, salvaged from the wreckage.
Saturday, she strode again in her sister's shoes, figuratively this time, as the University of Alabama granted Danielle Downs a posthumous degree.
Five of the six families of students who perished in the storm gathered to receive posthumous degrees. Two siblings and three sets of parents, most teary-eyed, accepted the plaques and hugs offered by University President Robert Witt.
"You picture seeing your daughter doing this, not doing it for her," Allan Sigler told Reuters after the ceremony. He is the father of Morgan Sigler, 23, who died along with two friends when the tornado swept her home from its foundation.
The University of Alabama students were killed when an EF-4 tornado tore through Tuscaloosa at 5:17 p.m. on April 27. A cell of 63 devastating tornadoes ripped through Alabama that day, killing 243 people throughout the state and 43 in Tuscaloosa, according to the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Danielle Downs was sheltering with friends not far from where Morgan Sigler huddled in the center of her home. A tree fell from the sky, according to her mother.
"At 5:13 she texted to tell her sister that she loved her; that was the last we heard," said Terri Downs, 54, mother of Danielle and Michelle.
Four other students died in the storm: Scott Atterton, Ashley Harrison, Melanie Nicole Mixon and Marcus Smith.
Two of the students killed were seniors who would have graduated days after the tornado. The university postponed the graduation because the crippled city could not support an influx of family members, or even the student population after the storms damaged water and power systems.
"It was so very hard. It happened and everybody had to leave. We hope these awards will bring the families closer to closure," Witt said.
Emergency responders attend too
The university combined Spring and Summer graduations, bringing hundreds of students and families to Coleman Auditorium on Saturday. After an honor guard presentation of first responders, who were critical to saving hundreds of lives, the families received the degrees.
"We appreciate the university for recognizing her accomplishments, but it is bittersweet because she isn't here," said Vega Sigler, 53, mother of Morgan Sigler.
At a memorial service and vigil Friday night attended by five of the families and 300 students, student government president Grant Cochran dabbed tears as he remembered the students who died.
Cochran said Sigler was a "bright, sparkling personality" and self-described Daddy's girl. She had been taking golf lessons to spend more time with her father.
"She did it just for me," Allan Sigler said. "Only God's goodness is getting me through this."
The two had planned to open a wedding stationery business with Morgan's graphic arts degree.
A special reading on Friday celebrated the life of social work major Danielle Downs, 24. She had planned to move to Eglin Air Force Base and work with the children of deployed military parents. Cochran called her an advocate of the underdog.
"I feel like someone cracked half my heart out," Terri Downs said.
Both families expressed appreciation for the support of the University, for their children and others.
"We met the worst of Mother Nature with the best of humanity," Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said at the memorial service.