Damaged photographs rescued from a fire that killed three young brothers and their grandmother in Washington Court House, Ohio, recently received the kind of treatment usually given to historical artifacts in museums.
Over 260 photos that suffered fire and water damage in the tragic accident were restored by graduate students in a photo conservation class at the University of Delaware. The photos were delivered back to Ricky Harris and Traci Harris, the parents of the three brothers lost in the fire, last Friday.
"It was bittersweet experience," family friend and UDel doctoral student Michael Emmons told ABC News today. "The photos won't bring back Ricky and Traci's children and Ricky's mom, but it's powerful that they're able to save these memories."
Emmons discovered the damaged photos laid out in Ricky's garage while on his way to pay his condolences last December, he said.
The hundreds of photos were charred, covered in soot and stained by the water used to fight the blaze that took the lives of 60-year-old Terry Harris and her grandsons Kenyon, 14, Broderick, 11, and Braylon, 9.
Emmons then contacted Debra Hess Norris, chairman of UDel's art conservation department and photo conservation professor, asking if she knew of any way to help restore the photos for the Harris family.
Coincidentally, Norris was prepping for a photo conservation class, Emmons said, and she switched out her original class project plans to help the Harris family, using their photos for the class project instead.
The students worked late nights and weekends to restore every photograph one-by-one, Norris told ABC News today.
"It was a labor of love on the part of everyone," Norris said. "The project was such a great example of why preservation of cultural heritage is so important. Just seeing the memories they contain, it was a very moving and real affirmation as to why we're involved in this field."
The photographs included both black-and-white and color portraits, Polaroids, and photo booth prints and snapshots, Norris said.
Every image was treated differently according to its particular damage, she added.
"At times, many of us were in tears," Norris said. "We felt a strong personal connection to the images."
Norris flew to Ohio with Emmons to personally deliver the photos at a community gathering held at a local youth recreational center, she said.
Ricky and Traci said they were very grateful for the photos and the work students did to restore them, but it's difficult to see the people they can no longer hug in person.
"When I look in their eyes in those pictures, you see them like physically, like I am looking at you guys, I can grab you guys, but I can't grab them," Ricky told ABC News affiliate WSYX.
ABC News' attempts to contact Ricky and Traci for additional comment were unsuccessful.
The cause of the blaze hasn't been determined yet, the the state fire marshal's office said Friday, WSYX reported, but Ricky said he thinks a propane gas leak started the fire.
The fire destroyed the house and its contents, but the photographs were discovered in a tub, charred and wet, WSYX added.