(MOORE, Okla.) — Graduation ceremonies were held Saturday for students from three high schools in an Oklahoma community ravaged by a monstrous tornado, marking a bittersweet end to a week that brought fatalities and unfathomable destruction.
Three highs schools in the Moore Public Schools system — Westmoore, Southmoore and Moore high schools — held back-to-back ceremonies Saturday at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City.
Students who lost their caps, gowns and tassels in the tornado were given replacements free of charge so they could still participate in the rite of passage and walk in their ceremony.
Seven tornadoes had hit the area during the lifespan of the class of 2013, but many of the graduates said they planned to stay in the area as they moved on to the next chapters of their lives.
The graduation ceremonies came in the midst of the first of the private funerals being held for the 24 people, including seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary School, who were killed in Monday’s tornado.
“What was started off as a normal day at Plaza Towers turned into horrible, horrible thing for seven families,” principal Amy Simpson said on Friday, as she recalled the massive twister that decimated the school.
“So many of us survived that day, because the teachers were able to act quickly, stay calm and take literally the weight of a wall,” she said.
For Becky Flood, who lives one block from the school, the young lives lost were the most heartwrenching effect of the tornado.
“The hard part is having friends that’ve lost their kids,” she said. “I know what it is to lose a child. I lost a daughter three years ago.”
Emergency calls from the harrowing moments during the twister were released on Friday, capturing the terror felt by residents as they sought shelter.
“A tornado just hit us we’re trapped in a closet … we can’t get out,” a caller said.
“Are you injured?” the dispatcher asked.
“No, we just can’t breathe,” the caller replied.
Amid the loss and destruction, one woman received a glimmer of hope just in time for Memorial Day Weekend, when a group of volunteers found and returned her father’s American flag, which had been saved from his time serving in the Korean War.
On Sunday, President Obama is scheduled to visit the devastated community to meet with victims and first responders. A public memorial service is also scheduled for Sunday evening at the First Baptist Church in Moore, Okla.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s office said 4,500 seats were available to the public on a first come, first served basis at the church, but the response is expected to be so overwhelming that overflow seating is being made available at Westmoore High School.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Steven Visser and John Newsome, CNN
Debra Goldschmidt and Nadia Kounang, CNN