After a tornado hits a Kentucky town, residents pick through the rubble and pray

The tornado destruction in Mayfield, Ky.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty Images)
Share via

When the winds whipped up, Shirley Poole and her family climbed into the basement and tied themselves with ropes to a pipe. Then, after the tornado passed like a train roaring through their historic 1800s brick home, they stepped gingerly upstairs to find it had ripped off the roof and the second story, smashed all the windows and flooded each room with dirt and debris.

“It’s unreal,” the 54-year-old homemaker said Sunday as she rummaged through the wreckage of the front room, where she has home-schooled her grandchildren, searching for medicine and school supplies.

“Our whole community’s gone,” she said.

Looking out the windowless room across North 5th Street and Indiana Avenue, all Poole could see was a landscape of demolished homes and uprooted trees tangled with shards of corrugated metal and shreds of pink foam insulation.

Tamara Yekinni hugs a friend outside a shelter in Wingo, Ky.,
Tamara Yekinni hugs a friend outside a shelter in Wingo, Ky., on Sunday.
(Robert Bumsted / Associated Press)

Poole didn’t think she would rebuild. She doesn’t have homeowner’s insurance, and she couldn’t imagine her neighborhood of 19 years would ever be the same. But she was grateful for at least one small blessing: underneath the fallen Christmas tree, dressed in purple tinsel and red and gold ornaments, the kids’ wrapped presents remained unscathed.

Residents and recovery workers across Kentucky and a wide swath of the Midwest and South continued to pick through the rubble Sunday after a flurry of tornadoes rumbled through on Friday night. Five states reported deaths, including Illinois, where six employees at an Amazon warehouse were killed. Kentucky’s governor said Monday that 64 people in his state were killed.

At least 90 people were feared dead — most of them in Kentucky — after a series of tornadoes tore through the Midwest and Southeast, according to state and local officials.

Dec. 12, 2021

“The very first thing that we have to do is grieve together, and we’re going to do that before we rebuild together,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news briefing Sunday in Mayfield.

“It didn’t take a roof, which is what we’ve seen in the past,” Beshear said, noting that one tornado tore across 227 miles. “It exploded the whole house. People, animals ... just gone.”

In Mayfield, a small western Kentucky city with a population of 9,817, the tornado ripped roofs off homes and lifted some entirely off their concrete foundations. Many of the town’s downtown landmarks were gone.


The clock tower was shorn off the Graves County Courthouse. The roof was lifted off the sanctuary of Mayfield First United Methodist Church, exposing its organ to the heavens. Even small stores, such as the Lucky Liquor Wine Package drive-through, were razed.

People rescue a dog from a tornado-damaged home.
A dog is rescued from a tornado-damaged home in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday. The rescuers are Derrick Starks, left, Chris Buchanan, center, and Niki Thompson.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

“It’s just overwhelming,” Suzanne Flint, 53, said softly as she smoked a cigarette on West Broadway, the town’s main thoroughfare, and stared at the ruins of the Carr Barn BBQ, a breakfast and lunch restaurant that had been in her family for 70 years, across three generations. The roof lay on top of a flattened pile of timber and cinder blocks, dotted with bottles of Louisiana hot sauce.

Flint had already squeezed under the roof and into the kitchen to pull out her grandmother’s old biscuit pans and cast-iron pots. She also hoped to retrieve some vintage bar stools and dining chairs.

“It’s a mess, but the whole town’s that way,” she said as she turned from the restaurant and gestured across the street to the pile of wood and rubble that was her uncle’s steakhouse.

As more than 300 members of the National Guard conducted search and rescue and removed debris, some residents continued to hunt for news of loved ones.


Outside His House Ministries, a modern church on the outskirts of the city that families were told to go for information, a volunteer walked a therapy dog Sunday as a woman emerged sobbing and dabbing a tissue to her eyes.

Not everyone who arrived was looking for loved ones who had perished in the storm. With the area without power and reliable phone and internet service, some were trying to find those who had survived.

Justin Hamil, a 39-year-old internet service provider, said he was looking for his aunt, who survived the storm that destroyed her apartment complex by hiding in the bathtub. She told family Saturday night she was at a church shelter, but he didn’t know where.

Other residents were left trying to make sense of how one building could be razed and another spared.

Timothy McDill and his tornado-damaged home in Mayfield, Ky.
Timothy McDill outside his tornado-damaged home in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

“Everyone in this house is in God’s favor,” Amelia Hernandez, a 36-year-old homemaker, said as she sat on her porch steps Sunday morning drinking a glass of Bud Ice.


When the neighbor’s dog started barking Friday night, Hernandez took shelter in a closet in the middle of her modest one-story bungalow. The house made it through with minor damage. But just a few blocks away, the water tower was razed and a day-care center was lifted from its foundation on to the street.

“There’s no courthouse, no police station, no probation,” Hernandez said as a roommate boiled water for coffee in the front yard. “It’s awful.”

Hernandez also had questions about the site where there was apparently the biggest loss of life: a local candle factory. Why, she wondered, hadn’t managers at the factory arranged for workers on the night shift to leave and escape the path of the tornado?

On Sunday, Beshear said 40 of the more than 110 candle factory employees working the night shift had been rescued — a number that had not changed in his statements since Saturday. But later in the evening, a spokesman for the factory, Mayfield Consumer Products, told the Associated Press that eight people were confirmed dead and more than 90 people had been accounted for. Eight people were missing.

“Many of the employees were gathered in the tornado shelter, and after the storm was over they left the plant and went to their homes,” a company spokesman told the AP. “With the power out and no landline they were hard to reach initially. We’re hoping to find more of those eight unaccounted as we try their home residences.”

Stephen Boyken, lead pastor at His House Ministries and a chaplain at the candle factory, was one of the first people to arrive at the factory minutes after the tornado hit.


Dressed in joggers, a rain jacket and tennis shoes, Boyken crawled on to the metal beams of the collapsed building and prayed and held the hand of a woman who was trapped under a cinder-block wall. Eventually, the woman was rescued, but not everyone made it out alive.

“I watched people breathe their last breath in the candle factory,” he said outside his church early Sunday. “I am mourning those that we’ve lost. I’m broken by that.”

In the midst of the loss and tragedy, Boyken said, he was also heartened to see people come together. Throughout the day, residents and volunteers from across Kentucky and other states came to his church to drop off water, hot meals and winter jackets.

“The biggest need that we have is prayer,” he said. “Mayfield has lost buildings — even some that represent tradition — but they haven’t lost their heart, and the heart of this town is hurting. We need people who can pray for our community.”

On Sunday, the Rev. Joey Reed, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church, could no longer worship in his historic church after the roof was ripped off the sanctuary and the foundations of the church annex appeared unstable.

As Reed linked up with a smaller Methodist congregation on the outskirts of town to hold a joint Sunday service, he admitted that when he emerged late Friday from the rubble of his church, he wondered how on earth he could give his scheduled sermon on joy. Just a few hours before speaking, he had found out that an elderly congregant had died in her apartment during the tornado.


But he went on to tell his congregation that back in the rubble of the church, there was a bulletin that contained the synopsis of the day’s sermon: “Joy is not happiness,” it said. “Happiness cannot be destroyed by a turn of events.”

A few in the wooden pews gasped.

Even if houses across Mayfield resemble boxes of matches scattered across the landscape, Reed said, God was in the business of putting things together one step at a time.

“We have been struck, but we are not destroyed,” Reed told the small but united congregation. “We are blessed beyond any curse.”