In a violent instant, deadly tornado destroys Kentucky candle factory with workers inside

South China Morning Post

Posted at Dec 13 2021 06:53 AM

Emergency workers search through what is left of the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory after it was destroyed by a tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky, on Saturday. AFP
Emergency workers search through what is left of the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory after it was destroyed by a tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky, on Saturday. AFP

On the day before Thanksgiving, Mayfield Consumer Products in western Kentucky posted photos online showing smiling employees lining up at a buffet table ready to enjoy a special pre-holiday meal together in the factory canteen.

On Friday night, the candle-making plant where workers had celebrated two weeks earlier lay in ruins, flattened by a devastating tornado during a late shift as more than 100 employees toiled inside. The next morning, 40 of them had been rescued; many of the rest were missing.

More than 70 people are believed to have been killed in Kentucky alone, many of them workers at the candle factory, while at least six died in an Amazon warehouse in Illinois where they were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.

The tragedy came as Mayfield Consumer Products, which describes itself as a local, family-owned maker of candles, wax and home fragrance goods, was seeking to expand its workforce, recently advertising job openings on its website and Facebook page.

Search-and-rescue teams on Saturday combed through the debris of the tornado-ravaged factory on the west side of Mayfield, a picturesque town near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the far southwestern corner of Kentucky.

The tornado was one of dozens of devastating twisters that roared through six US states in what US President Joe Biden said was likely to be "one of the largest" storm outbreaks in American history, with officials fearing at least 100 people were killed.

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Nowhere suffered as much as Mayfield, where the powerful twisters, which weather forecasters say are unusual in winter, destroyed the candle factory and the fire and police stations.

Across the town of 10,000 people in the state's southwestern corner, homes were flattened or missing roofs, giant trees had been uprooted, street signs were mangled and debris was strewn everywhere.

People combed through the rubble of their homes for belongings until night fell on Saturday. Then the power-deprived town was mired in darkness, save for occasional flashlights and emergency vehicle headlights.

"This event is the worst, most devastating, most deadly tornado event in Kentucky's history," said state governor Andy Beshear, adding he fears "we will have lost more than 100 people."

"The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life, and I have trouble putting it into words," he told reporters.

Forty people had been rescued from the candle factory but it would be "a miracle if anybody else is found alive," he said.

"It looks like a bomb has exploded," said 31-year-old Mayfield resident Alex Goodman. Mayfield was reduced to "matchsticks," its mayor Kathy O'Nan told CNN.

Among those said to be unaccounted for at the wrecked factory was an employee identified by family as Jill Monroe, 52, who was last heard from at 9.30pm, around the time the storm struck, according to her daughter, Paige Tingle.

Reached through Facebook on Saturday, Tingle said she had driven four hours to the factory site in the hopes of finding her mother, whose fate remains unknown.

"We don't know what to think. We are extremely nervous. We don't know how to feel, we are just trying to find her," Tingle said. "It's a disaster here. My thoughts go out to everyone."

One employee who survived the collapse live streamed a video from inside where she was trapped, her legs pinned under the rubble.

"I'm really scared," Kyanna Parsons-Perez can be heard saying in a live video she shared on Facebook while she waited to be rescued. The screams and prayers of other workers, some in Spanish, pierce the almost complete darkness of the collapsed factory.

"I didn't think I was going to make it," Parsons-Perez said in another video she shared after her rescue on Saturday, her birthday. "My legs, I couldn't move them and I was just freaking out," she said, calling the experience the scariest of her life.

In an interview that aired earlier in the day on NBC's Today show, Parsons-Perez said among those who rushed to the aid of trapped workers were a group of inmates from the nearby Graves County jail. "They could have used that moment to try to run away or anything, but they did not. They were there, helping us," she said.

Her account of inmates assisting in rescue efforts could not be immediately verified, but Graves County Jail said in a Facebook post it had "a few inmates working at the candle factory", and that it had lost one staff member.

A warning had been issued in Mayfield ahead of the deadly tornadoes, both through the local TV station and the town's siren, US Congressman James Comer, whose district includes Mayfield, told CNN in an interview.

There were no immediate casualty estimates available for the factory or the surrounding community, one of the hardest-hit areas of a storm that carved a 320km-long path of destruction through several counties on Friday night. But Governor Andy Beshear estimated at least 100 people had perished in Kentucky as a whole.

About 110 people were believed to have been inside the candle-making plant when it was levelled by the twister, with 40 people rescued as of Saturday afternoon, Beshear told reporters at a news conference.

The Graves County coroner earlier told CNN that 40 people remained unaccounted for at the factory.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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