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An infant, a judge, a keen outdoorsman: Tornado victims were from all walks of life

U.S. flag hangs from tree amid tornado debris
A U.S. flag hangs from a tree as two women carry items recovered Sunday from the wreckage wrought by a devastating tornado in Mayfield, Ky.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

A 2-month-old whose family tried to protect her by putting her in a car seat. A 94-year-old Korean War veteran from Arkansas. A longtime florist in Tennessee who recently “started on her new adventure” as an airport security worker. An Amazon warehouse worker in Illinois. A Kentucky judge known for his common sense.

These were among the dozens of people killed during Friday night’s tornadoes that ripped through five states in the Midwest and South. There were dozens of confirmed deaths in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee, but that number is expected to rise. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday at least 74 had died in his state alone.

For the record:

7:50 a.m. Dec. 13, 2021An earlier version of this story misstated the number of tornado deaths in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee. At least a dozen deaths have been reported altogether in those states, not in each state.

Here are some of the people who perished during the tornadoes:

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Douglas Koon, his wife, Jackie, and their three children huddled in his mother-in-law’s bathroom in Dawson Springs, Ky., as the storms approached. The tornado hit the house directly, flinging the family around and tossing a bathtub in the air that was shielding two of his sons. The couple put their infant daughter, Oaklynn, in a car seat to protect her, and she appeared to be OK on Saturday.

“It’s the most traumatic thing I’ve been through. I felt like I was helpless in protecting my kids,” Douglas Koon told MSNBC in an interview Saturday. But by Sunday, the baby was having seizures, and doctors noticed a brain bleed after she was taken to the hospital. They believed she had a stroke, Koon said in a Facebook post.

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.

“It’s not looking good at this point,” he wrote. “The machines are keeping her alive.”

Early Monday, the family posted that the infant had died.

In a text message to the Associated Press on Monday, Koon said he was struggling “to process everything that I’m going through.”

A family member has set up a GoFundMe account for Koon’s family and his mother-in-law, Sheila Rose, who lost her home.

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Lisa Taylor had worked 14 years as a florist at the same family-owned shop in Memphis, Tenn., when she left in October to start a new career at the airport with the Transportation Security Administration. Co-workers at Rachel’s Flowers congratulated her with balloons on a sign that read, “Good Luck, Lisa.”

Taylor, 54, stayed in touch with her friends at the flower shop, making plans to return part time over the holidays to make some extra money. Then the phone rang Saturday, just as the power came back on at the shop after violent storms passed through overnight. Taylor’s longtime boyfriend was calling with tragic news. A large tree had fallen through her roof overnight, killing Taylor as she slept in bed.

“She had just gotten started on her new adventure and she’s just been taken,” said Angie Morton, who worked as a florist alongside Taylor for several years.

A single mother of two children now in their 20s, Taylor took her new government job for higher wages and the extra stability that came with health insurance and other benefits, friends said.

But she had a creative spark that made her a natural when it came to working with flowers, Morton said, whether she was helping grieving families design funeral arrangements or using bits and pieces of broken, castoff jewelry to add some custom sparkle to high school girls’ prom corsages.

“She really liked to bling everything up,” Morton said. “She would take stuff other people would throw in the trash and make beautiful things out of it. If she found an earring in a store that didn’t have a matching pair, she would think, ‘I know there’s somebody who that would be perfect for her corsage.’”

Charles Newell, deputy emergency management administrator for Shelby County, Tenn., said she was the only known storm death in the county that includes Memphis.

Rachel Greer, the flower shop’s owner, was helping plan floral arrangements for Taylor’s funeral. She said Taylor’s daughter had requested “a sea of purple flowers” such as lavender roses and chrysanthemums to match her mother’s favorite color.

Meanwhile customers were dropping by the shop to offer condolences and leaving notes. One of them read: “Lisa was a light in a dark world.”

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Golden Wes Hembrey, 94, died when a tornado destroyed the nursing home in which he lived in Monette, Ark.

His nephew, Mike Hembrey, said the Korean War veteran and retired farmer had been in the nursing home since 2016 because of Alzheimer’s disease. But he remembered his uncle as engaged with his extended family throughout their younger years.

“He was outgoing,” his nephew said. “He’d be out in the yard playing with us. But don’t make him mad. When he was mad, he was mad.”

“He liked cutting up, telling jokes,” said niece Kristie Carmichael.

The Hembreys said Jimmie Hembrey had visited his brother the day before the tornado and found him to be in good health.

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Graves County Deputy Jailer Robert Daniel was supervising inmate workers at a candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., when the tornado struck. His boss said Monday that Daniel had been focused on the prisoners in his care when he was killed as the twister wrecked the plant.

Daniel, 47, had worked at the county jail for a few years previously and was rehired a few months ago, Graves County Jailer George Workman said. The seven inmates Daniel was overseeing at the factory Friday night were part of a brand-new work program and had just begun their jobs three days earlier.

After the storm hit, the inmates told Workman’s deputies that it was Daniel who literally had pushed them all to safety, guiding them through a doorway and against a wall in an interior part of the plant. Workman said the last inmate through the door told deputies that Daniel was behind him one moment, and suddenly he was gone.

“He was physically still in the act of trying to get them to safety. And that’s when it hit,” Workman said. “It takes a tremendous person to be able to lay their own life down for somebody else. But he did and he was doing it for the right reasons.”

All of seven of the inmates in Daniel’s care survived, Workman said, with two of them suffering broken legs.

A cousin, Mark Saxton Sr., said Daniel was a native of the Mayfield area that was devastated by the storm.

“He loved his community,” Saxton said. “He was a great family man. Everybody who met him just loved him. He’s the type of person you want to be associated with.”

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Brian Crick, a judge for two western Kentucky counties, was known for his sound judgment when it came to solving problems, a fellow judge said.

Crick, 43, was a district judge for Muhlenberg and McLean counties who handled criminal misdemeanor cases, traffic court and juvenile cases, said Circuit Judge Brian W. Wiggins. Wiggins said he had known his fellow judge since 2005, when Crick was a public defender. Crick later was in private practice before taking the bench in 2011.

Many of the defendants who came before him weren’t represented by attorneys, and Crick “was very good about seeing to it that their rights were protected,” Wiggins said. “He had a very common-sense approach. He was very level-headed about how to handle cases and how to talk to people.”

Crick was killed when the storm hit his family’s home in Muhlenberg County. He is survived by a wife and three children, all of whom made it through the storm without major injuries, Wiggins said. “He was just a consummate family man ... very engaged with his children and his wife. They were No. 1 to him.”

“We are especially heartbroken to get the news,” Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton said in a statement. “This is a shocking loss to his family, his community and the court system and his family is in our prayers.”

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Two of June Pennington’s children said the Manila, Ark., resident was devoted to her four children and nine grandchildren and had a particular soft spot for animals.

Pennington, 52, was working as an assistant manager at a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Ark., when it was hit.

Residents and recovery workers across Kentucky and a wide swath of the Midwest and the South continued to pick through the rubble Sunday after a flurry of tornadoes ripped through Friday night.

“She didn’t love anything as much in life as her kids and grandkids,” said Christie Pennington. “She was truly selfless and loved whole-heartedly.”

David Benefield, the oldest of June Pennington’s four children, said he was born when his mother was only 14.

“She was a kid raising a kid. We were just like best friends,” he said. “It’s crazy how close you become.”

Her children remember her as someone who “would do anything that we asked her to do,” Benefield said. Even after her children were grown, they said June Pennington wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

Unusually warm temperatures and a storm system helped create the conditions for the monstrous tornadoes and severe weather in the Midwest and South.

Christie Pennington said her mother adopted dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, turtles and even a ferret.

“If there was ever an animal in need of a home, we took it in,” she said.

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Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, had been working at Amazon for more than a year before he died at a company facility in southwestern Illinois.

Five other workers died at the facility outside St. Louis.

Cope, who lived in nearby Alton, Ill., had joined the Navy after graduating from high school, and was an avid outdoorsman who also liked to ride motorcycles and play video games. He had a special place in his heart for his dog, Draco, said his younger sister, Rachel Cope.

“He would go out of his way for anyone,” Cope said in a written message.

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Ollie Borgmann, 84, was a sweet and “typical grandmother” who had lived in her home in Defiance, Mo., for decades.

A tornado blew through the home she shared with her 84-year-old husband, Vernon, on Friday night, blowing the house off its foundation, as well as that of a neighbor’s house in the town about 40 miles west of St. Louis.

Her son, Mark Borgmann, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his brother, Keith, was on the phone with their father during the powerful storm when the line went dead. The next thing Vernon Borgmann remembers is waking up in a nearby field surrounded by debris. He suffered scratches and bruises but will be OK, said Mark Borgmann.

When Ollie Borgmann was found by rescuers, she was awake. She died later at a hospital.

Lovan reported from Louisville, Ky. Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga. Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn.; Terry Wallace in Dallas; Sophie Tareen in Chicago; Josh Funk in Omaha; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla.; and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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