Devastated Kentucky tornado survivors pick through debris; search turns to recovery

Devastating tornadoes rip through several U.S. states
Destroyed homes and debris are seen in a heavily damaged neighborhood in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
REUTERS/Jon Cherry

By Gabriella Borter

MAYFIELD, Ky. – Kentucky residents, many without power, water or even a roof over their heads, worked on Sunday to salvage what they could in towns scarred by a string of powerful tornadoes that officials fear killed more than 100 people while obliterating homes, businesses and anything else in their way.

Authorities said they had little hope of finding survivors beneath the rubble, but rescue workers continued to scour fields of debris.

More than 100 people were believed to have been killed in Kentucky alone after the tornadoes tore through the Midwest and South on Friday night. Six workers were killed at an warehouse in Illinois. A nursing home was struck in Missouri.

But nowhere suffered as much as the small town of Mayfield, Kentucky, where the large twisters, which weather forecasters say are unusual in winter, destroyed a 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 and street signs were mangled.

Pastor Stephen Boyken, head of His House Ministries in Mayfield, was one of the first people at the candle factory.

He said he held the hand of a woman who was trapped and prayed with her, urging her to stay awake as she drifted in and out of consciousness, waiting for ambulances to arrive. The woman was eventually rescued.

“We were working together and searching, listening for the screams, listening for the cries,” he said.

Timothy McDill, 48, a refrigeration repair technician, slept Saturday night without water or power in his house in Mayfield, which his parents bought in 1992. A telephone pole had come through a window and the brick exterior was ripped off, leaving entire rooms exposed.

The night of the storm, he tied himself, his wife, his two grandkids, 14 and 12, their two Chihuahuas and a cat to a drainpipe in their basement using a flagpole rope and waited for it to be over.

“They were troopers. They didn’t cry that much,” McDill said of the children. “Me and my missus were doing all the crying. We were scared we were going to lose the kids and they don’t think of that.”

Destroyed homes and debris are seen Sunday in a heavily damaged neighborhood at dawn in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, after tornadoes ripped through several states.REUTERS/Jon Cherry

Steve Wright, 61, was driving around looking for gas on Sunday morning, nervous because he was running low. A resident of Mayfield for the last four years, his apartment complex was largely spared.

After the storm had passed, he took a flashlight and started walking around town looking for people who might be trapped. He ended up helping a father pull his dead 3-year-old from the rubble.

“It was bad. I helped dig out a dead baby, right up here,” he said gesturing to debris that used to be a two-story house. “I prayed for both of them, that was all I could do.”


Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said the tornadoes were the most destructive in the state’s history. He said about 40 workers had been rescued at the candle factory in Mayfield where it is believed about 110 people were inside when it was hit.

“I’ve got towns that are gone … My dad’s hometown, Paxton, isn’t standing,” Beshear said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday, adding the devastation was hard to describe.

“You think you can go door to door to check on people and see if they’re OK — there are no doors. The question is, is somebody in the rubble of thousands upon thousands of structures?”

In Edwardsville, Illinois, six Amazon workers were confirmed dead on Saturday and more are missing after a warehouse roof was ripped off, causing 11-inch thick concrete walls longer than football fields to collapse.

The genesis of the tornado outbreak was a series of overnight thunderstorms, including a super cell storm that formed in northeast Arkansas and moved into Arkansas and Missouri and then into Tennessee and Kentucky.

President Joe Biden told reporters he would ask the Environmental Protection Agency to examine what role climate change may have played in fueling the storms.

Mayfield resident Jamel Alubahr, 25, said his 3-year-old nephew died and his sister was in the hospital with a skull fracture after being stuck under the rubble of their home.

“It all happened in the snap of a finger,” said Alubahr, who is now staying with another sister in Mayfield.

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