MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Mayfield Consumer Products night shift workers were in the thick of the holiday rush, blowing out Christmas candles, when a tornado approached the plant and the word was “duck and cover”. ”
Autumn Kirks lowered her safety glasses and took cover, tossing aside buckets of wax and perfume to make room. She looked away from her boyfriend, Lannis Ward, and when she turned around, he was gone.
On Sunday, he was among dozens of people missing and feared to have died in the rubble of the factory.
With the Kentucky governor warning that the state’s death toll from Friday night’s tornado outbreak in Mayfield and other communities could top 100, Kirks and others waited in anguish for news from loved ones as the rescue effort grew darker by the hour.
“Not knowing is worse than knowing now,” she said. “I try to stay strong. It’s very difficult right now. »
Forty of the 110 people who were inside the plant were removed shortly after the tornado hit, authorities said. Rescuers had to crawl over the dead to reach the living at a disaster scene that smelled like scented candles.
But by the time worshipers gathered Sunday morning to pray for the lost, more than 24 hours had passed since anyone had been found alive.
“It will be a miracle if we get someone else out of it. There are now 15 feet deep of steel and cars above where the roof was,” Governor Andy Beshear said on CNN. “Just hard.”
Kentucky was by far the hardest-hit state in an unusual swarm of tornadoes in mid-December across the Midwest and South that leveled entire communities and killed at least 14 people in four other states.
“From the reports I’ve received, I can tell you that we’ve lost over 80 Kentucky people. This number is going to exceed more than 100,” Beshear said.
“I have towns that are gone, that are just, I mean, gone. My dad’s hometown – half ain’t standing. It is difficult for me to describe. I know people can see the visuals, but it’s 12 blocks or more in some of these places. »
He said going door to door looking for victims in the hardest hit areas was out of the question: “There are no doors.” With high afternoon temperatures forecast only in the 1940s, tens of thousands of people were without power.
Kirks said she and her boyfriend were about 10 feet apart in a hallway when someone said to take cover. Suddenly, she saw sky and lightning where a wall was, and Ward was gone.
“I remember taking my eyes off him for a second and then he left. I don’t know where he went, I have no idea,” she said.
Kirks was at a ministry center where people were gathering to seek information on the missing.
“It was indescribable,” Pastor Joel Cauley said of the scene of the disaster. “It was almost as if you were in a twilight zone. You could smell the candles and you could hear people calling for help. The candles smell and all the sirens are not something I expected to experience at the same time.
The tornado that blazed the trail of destruction in Kentucky touched down an extraordinary and potentially record-breaking distance of more than 200 miles (320 kilometers). Eleven people were reportedly killed in and around Bowling Green alone.
The storm was all the more remarkable because it came in December, when normally colder weather limits tornadoes.
The outbreak also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon fulfillment center in Edwardsville was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed and the governor said workers were protecting residents with their own bodies; and two in Missouri.
Debris of destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a town of about 10,000 people in western Kentucky. Twisted metal sheets, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs torn from buildings still standing.
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In the shadow of their crumpled church sanctuaries, two Mayfield congregations came together on Sunday to pray for those who were lost. Members of First Christian Church and First Presbyterian Church met in a parking lot surrounded by rubble, piles of broken bricks and metal.
“Our little town will never be the same again, but we are resilient,” said Laura McClendon. “We will get there, but it will take a long time.
Associated Press writers Kristin Hall and Claire Galofaro in Mayfield; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Seth Borenstein in Washington; and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.