They sifted through the darkness, hoping their flashlights would shine on something - anything - salvageable.
Instead, they found their life's belongings strewn in pieces among heaps of rubble where their homes once stood.
But they were the fortunate ones - the ones who survived after 81 reported tornadoes tore through the Midwest on Sunday. The storms killed six people and destroyed at least 70 homes in Illinois alone CNN's Indra Petersons reports.
"These storms having been moving so fast today, it's been hard to keep up," storm chaser Tony Laubach told CNN as he watched a tornado touch down outside Lebanon, Indiana.
In their aftermath, the storms left impassable roads, widespread outages and blocks and blocks of homes stripped bare. Hundreds of thousands were affected; the economic impact in the millions.
"A lot of people have a pile of rubble still, and I don't have anything," said Michelle Crumrine. "It's gone. I don't know where it went."
Crumrine was out of town when her neighborhood in Washington, Illinois, was hit. She returned to a wasteland.
Of all the cities ravaged by the storms, this city of 10,000 people in central Illinois was perhaps the hardest hit.
"It was complete destruction," said resident Anthony Khoury. "There are people in the streets crying."
As the dark twister churned toward his home, Khoury kept his camera glued to the window - and prayed. "Our father, thou art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name."
"The tornado happened in my backyard, and you can hear people screaming," Khoury told CNN's iReport. "We were freaking out."
Investigators have yet to determine the extent of the wrath - including exactly how many tornadoes touched down. Two National Weather Service teams will survey the damage Monday - one in Washington, and one in east central Illinois.