Devastation | 

Hope fades for survivors in Kentucky as rescuers comb ruins left by violent tornadoes

Death toll expected to reach 100 amid debris of flattened buildings
Mart Egbert collects Christmas gifts meant for his grandchildren from what is left of his home after the tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Photo: Minh Connors/Reuters

Mart Egbert collects Christmas gifts meant for his grandchildren from what is left of his home after the tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Photo: Minh Connors/Reuters

Bruce Schreiner

Rescuers picked desperately through the tornado-­ravaged ruins of Kentucky homes and businesses yesterday as the governor warned that the state’s death toll from the outbreak could top 100.

At a candle factory on night shift, workers sought refuge in what was supposed to be the safest part of the building in Mayfield, but it was flattened.

Authorities rescued 40 of the 110 people who were in the building at the time, but by yesterday, hope of finding anyone else alive had all but evaporated.

“It’ll be a miracle if we pull anybody else out of that. It’s now 15-feet deep of steel and cars on top of where the roof was,” said Governor Andy Beshear.

Jeremy Creason, Mayfield’s fire chief and emergency services director, said rescuers had to crawl over the dead to get to the living.

Kentucky was the worst-hit state by far in an unusual mid-December swarm of tornadoes across the Midwest and the South that levelled entire communities and left at least 14 people dead in five other states.

This combination of satellite images shows the destruction to an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, by the tornadoes. Photo: Maxar Technologies

This combination of satellite images shows the destruction to an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, by the tornadoes. Photo: Maxar Technologies

“I can tell you from reports that I’ve received I know we’ve lost more than 80 Kentuckians. That number is going to exceed more than 100,” Mr Beshear said.

“I’ve got towns that are gone, that are just, I mean gone. My dad’s hometown – half of it isn’t standing. It is hard for me to describe. I know people can see the visuals, but that goes on for 12 blocks or more in some of these places.”

He said that going door to door in search of victims is out of the question in the hard-hit areas: “There are no doors.”

Dale Kirks’ daughter and her boyfriend were both working at the candle factory when the tornado hit. She was trapped briefly, but a co-worker was able to pull her out of the rubble. Her boyfriend, Lannis Ward, was still missing.

“We’ve been waiting for information for the last two days since it happened,” Mr Kirks said outside a prefabricated building on the edge of town that became a makeshift centre for people seeking information about the missing.

“She’s having trouble processing it – not knowing if he’s alive or dead.”

One woman entered the building weeping, a state trooper came in with teddy bears, and a golden retriever was there to offer pet therapy.

The tornado that carved the path of destruction in Kentucky touched down for more than 320km in the state. Eleven people were reported killed in and around the city of Bowling Green alone.

If early reports are confirmed, the tornado “will likely go down perhaps as one of the longest-track violent tornadoes in United States history,” said Victor Gensini, a researcher on extreme weather at Northern Illinois University.

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 distribution centre in was hit –  four in Tennessee, two in Arkansas –  where a nursing home was destroyed – and two in Missouri.

Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky.

Twisted sheet metal, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs torn off the buildings that were still standing.

The missing at the candle factory included Janine Denise Johnson Williams, a 50-year-old mother of four whose family members kept vigil at the site at the weekend.

“It’s Christmastime and she works at a place that’s making candles for gifts,” said her brother, Darryl Williams.

“To give up the gift of life to make a gift. We haven’t heard anything, and I’m not presuming anything. But I’m expecting for the worst.”

He said Ms Johnson Williams called her husband overnight to report the weather was getting bad, the last time anyone heard from her.

Kyanna Parsons-Perez, an employee at the factory, was trapped under 1.5m of debris for at least two hours until rescuers managed to free her.

She said it was “absolutely the most terrifying” event she had ever experienced. “I did not think I was going to make it at all.”

Just before the tornado struck, the building’s lights flickered. She felt a gust of wind, her ears started popping and then, “Boom! Everything came down on us.”

People started screaming, and she heard other workers praying .


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