Deadly tornado leaves Kentucky town of Mayfield mourning and seeking survivors

A man walks through debris and damage from a tornado
A man walks through piles of debris from buildings destroyed when a tornado tore through Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

As a tornado passed over this Kentucky town of about 10,000 late Friday, the Rev. Wes Fowler huddled with his wife and three children — ages 12, 8 and 6 — in the basement of the First Baptist Church Mayfield.

“Ceiling tiles were moving up and down and dust filled the room. I basically got my family against a wall in the basement. I laid on top of them. Honestly, we didn’t know if we were going to make it for a few minutes there,” Fowler, 45, said Saturday, sobbing as he stood in the ruins of the church. “… In the moment, all I could think about was covering up my wife and my kids.”

At least 79 people were feared dead — most of them in Kentucky — after a series of tornadoes tore through the Midwest and Southeast overnight, according to state and local officials.

Rubble fills a downtown street near businesses and a church
Rubble fills a street in downtown Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday after it was struck by a devastating tornado.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

At a briefing Saturday, President Biden said he had approved an emergency declaration for Kentucky, “and I stand ready to do the same for the governors of the other states.”

“This is likely to be one of the largest tornado outbreaks in our history,” he said.

Biden said he spoke with the governors of the five most impacted states — Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee — as well as to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“We still don’t know how many lives are lost or the full extent of the damage,” Biden said.

He said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending resources, including help with temporary housing, and that he planned to visit the affected areas in Kentucky.

Biden said he expected one of the key questions after the tragedy would be, “What warning was there, was it strong enough and was it heeded? That’s a question that’s I assume going to be part of the discussion in the states as well as nationally.”

In Kentucky, a district court judge was among the dead, the state’s chief justice said.

Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters that four tornadoes had torn across the state, killing at least 70 people. One of the tornadoes touched down in northeastern Arkansas and then tore through 223 miles of Kentucky, possibly breaking a record set in 1925.


Beshear said he expected the death toll “could rise significantly” to more than 100. He activated the National Guard, which he said was clearing roads and going door to door to check on more than 56,000 people left without electricity and other utilities.

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“The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life,” Beshear said at a briefing after visiting Mayfield, calling the storms, “the worst, most devastating tornado event in Kentucky’s history.”

In Mayfield, where a tornado swept through the Mayfield Consumer Products candle-making factory, about 40 people were rescued, Beshear said. While a search continued for additional survivors at the factory, where 110 people were huddled, he was not optimistic after touring the wreckage.

“There’s at least 15 feet of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals. It will be a miracle if anyone is found,” he said.

Storm-related deaths were also reported in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee. Video showed rescuers combing massive fields of debris Saturday morning, recovering few survivors.

Damage from a tornado is seen by a "Welcome to Mayfield" sign
Bricks from shattered buildings litter the sidewalk in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

The impact was dramatic and deadly in small towns like Mayfield, about 130 miles northwest of Nashville, where those working overnight shifts at factories and warehouses wound up in the path while seeking shelter.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Saturday that at least six people died and first responders were still searching for others at an Amazon warehouse whose roof and walls collapsed in Edwardsville, Ill., about 25 miles northeast of St. Louis.

In Mayfield, a tornado not only razed the candle factory, post office and several streets of homes, it also tore the roofs off several churches, ripped the clock tower from the courthouse, sheared off the front of City Hall and leveled all of the shade trees.

“After seeing the devastation, I’m still trying to process how we’re safe,” said the Rev. Joey Reed, who sheltered with his wife during the storm in a basement annex at Mayfield First United Methodist Church, which lost its roof and Tiffany-style stained glass windows that date to 1919.

“It just makes you want to hold your breath as you pass,” Reed said. “Seeing the sanctuary absolutely gutted, open to the sky.”

Jill Monroe, a candle factory employee, texted her son late Friday to say she was sheltering with co-workers.

Monroe, 52, said tornado sirens had been going on and off since she started her shift at 7 p.m., according to son Chris Chism.

Chism, who lives outside Louisville, was accustomed to frequent tornado warnings, and wasn’t immediately worried.

A dog climbs out of a window of a flattened home toward his handler
Niki Thompson, right, and Chris Buchanan, assisted by rescue dog Cheyenne, search for survivors in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

“We go through them so much, usually the kids go to the basement and I’ll go to the front porch and watch and see if I can see it coming. That’s just how tornadoes are up here,” he said.

But by 9:30 p.m., his mother texted him to say she and the other workers “were all in the bathrooms hunkered down.”

“They had heard on the weather radio that a tornado had touched down near them,” he said. “She told me that for the first time in her life that she was scared to death.”

Then she wrote, “Told you it’s rough.”

Minutes later, according to reports, the tornado hit the factory.

“I never heard a reply,” Chism said.

Her only child, he drove four hours from his home to Mayfield, arriving by late morning intent on searching the rubble of the factory for his mother. The governor said at the morning briefing that no survivors had been found since 3 a.m., but Chism, a construction worker skilled at demolition work, still hoped he would find his mother alive.

“I’m taking her home either way,” he said. “I don’t really know how to feel about it yet. Once I get there and get to the candle factory, I won’t leave until I find her or she’s found. I brought boots and gloves and tools. I’ll do what I have to do to look for her and anybody else who’s trapped.”

People walk in the street past the remains of a collapsed multistory building and a crushed auto on a heavily damaged street
People walk down a street that was devastated by a tornado in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

He said his mother moved from the Louisville area to Mayfield four months ago to start over after separating from his stepfather. A lifelong factory worker, she had two choices for jobs, he said: the local chicken plant, or the candle factory, where his cousin already worked.

She told him workers at the factory were close-knit, with little turnover and supervisors willing to fill in for those on the production line. Because it was the holiday season, they had been staying late, working shifts that stretched to 7 a.m.

Kyanna Parsons-Perez had just started working at the candle factory last month. She said a friend called Friday urging her to stay home because of possible tornadoes. Parsons-Perez told him, “I am a single mom, I have four children and I have bills.”

She heard a tornado siren and was told to shelter soon after she reported for work at 6 p.m., then again at 9 p.m. That’s when the lights went out.

“We felt wind, my ears started popping, we shook a little and boom — everything collapsed on us,” she said.

Parsons-Perez couldn’t feel her legs, which were trapped under a water fountain and an air-conditioning unit. She could hear half a dozen co-workers wailing amid the drywall, insulation and other debris.

“I’m pinned down, I couldn’t move and I’m worried about the other people in there,” she said.

She broadcast from her cellphone on Facebook Live.

“I’m really scared,” she said as others around her cried. “… Where I’m at, I’m like stuck underneath a wall so I’ll be the last person who they get out.”

Then her 17-year-old daughter called.

“She could hear all the people screaming” and asked what happened, Parsons-Perez recalled.

“I told her the building collapsed. She said, ‘On you?’ Then she started to cry,” Parsons-Perez said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be fine,’ and I told her I loved her.”

While she was trapped, Parsons-Perez said she panicked at times, but also cracked jokes, sang and prayed.

“I kept saying, ‘God, give me Sampson’s strength,’ because I just wanted to get that stuff up off us,” said Parsons-Perez, who turned 40 on Saturday.

She was among the last in her group rescued, as co-workers and first responders had to clear debris to free her. Her daughter and a neighbor came to pick her up because her car had been tossed by the tornado.

On Saturday, she was examined at a local emergency room and returned home to news that at least one of her co-workers had died and another was still missing.

“If anybody can help, whatever they can do to help, they’re going to be calling for lots of assistance,” she said of Mayfield. “There are people who lost their homes, who lost their lives. I’m grateful that God saw fit for me to remain.”

Jesse Perry, chief executive for the county surrounding Mayfield, said Saturday that local officials were “in the trenches, trying to find people.”

“We need your prayers,” he said. “We need your help.”

Search crews use heavy machinery to dig through the rubble of a candle factory in Mayfield, Ky.
Search crews use heavy machinery Saturday to dig through the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky.
(Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press)

Fowler said First Baptist was still searching for one of its 350 members, a man who lived in a mobile home that was destroyed by the tornado. The tornado destroyed another church member’s house and damaged countless others.

“Everything in downtown Mayfield looks like it’s flattened. It doesn’t seem real,” said Fowler, who grew up in Mayfield, taking over the church his father pastored a decade ago.

The church, built in 1929, had been undergoing a renovation, he said, and for the last six months members held services in the gym.

“I’m actually standing in our gym right this second and I’m looking up at the sky,” Fowler said. “The roof’s gone. We’re just going to have to start over. It has torn the roof off of the sanctuary, we have water coming in, stained glass windows broken …”

Fowler paused, overcome by emotion. He said he knows the church isn’t just a structure, it’s the people and their faith.

“We’re going to get through this and rebuild,” he said, but added, “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how.”

Late Saturday, Fowler learned the missing church member, an elderly man, had died. “His house took a direct hit, and he just didn’t stand a chance,” he said.

Fowler knows Reed and the other religious leaders in town, who were setting up emergency staging areas at churches that are still standing. One of them invited Reed to preach on Sunday. He plans to talk about how Mayfield can weather such loss.

As night fell on Mayfield on Saturday, downed trees lined the roadways. But a bracing smell of pine was in the cold evening air.

“We’re not going to let this tornado steal our holiday,” he said. ”This holiday is about more than the things that we buy and the things that we own and give. It’s about the relationships.”

Times staff writers Jarvie reported from Mayfield, Ky., and Hennessy-Fiske from Houston.