Kentucky officials voiced relief Monday that dozens of workers at a candle factory appear to have survived tornadoes that killed at least 88 people and left a trail of devastation across six US states.
Governor Andy Beshear said 74 deaths have been confirmed in the southeastern state and choked up as he told reporters the fatalities ranged in age from five months old to 86.
“Like the folks in western Kentucky, I’m not doing so well today and I’m not sure how many of us are,” Beshear said.
The governor said 109 people in Kentucky remain unaccounted for and “it may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction.”
“Undoubtedly there will be more (dead),” he added.
But the governor said fears of a devastating death toll in the collapse of the candle factory in the ravaged town of Mayfield were apparently unfounded.
Some 110 employees were working late Friday at the Mayfield Consumer Products plant to meet the holiday rush when a twister ripped the building to shreds.
Jemaryon Hart, 21, said “I’m happy I’m alive” after surviving a gruelling seven hours trapped under the rubble of the factory.
“It was really scary, really painful, the walls, cinder blocks, metal, wood, everything just crushing you,” he told AFP.
The factory owners reported eight dead and eight missing from the collapse, and said “94 are alive and have been accounted for,” Beshear said.
“We are working on verifying the information from the candle factory that right now would only have eight confirmed dead, which is a Christmas miracle we hoped for, but we have to make sure it’s accurate,” Beshear said. “We feared much, much worse.”
Thousands of people have been left homeless by what the governor described as the state’s worst storm on record.
Fourteen deaths have been reported in four other states hit by the twisters — Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois. There was also damage, though no deaths, in Mississippi.
Six people were killed at an Amazon warehouse in the southern Illinois city of Edwardsville, where workers were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.
President Joe Biden said he will visit Kentucky on Wednesday and survey damage in Mayfield.
“It’s just devastating,” Biden told reporters, holding up photographs of the town.
“It’s a town that has been wiped out. But it’s not the only town.”
Biden has declared a major disaster in Kentucky, allowing additional federal aid to be channeled into recovery efforts.
A massive search effort was underway on Monday at the candle factory, which was left a twisted ruin by the force of the powerful winds.
A crane was methodically removing parts of the collapsed roof and rescuers accompanied by sniffer dogs were searching the debris by hand.
“The slow part is to remove the roof section over the production area,” said Tom Neal, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official.
“If there are still workers trapped in this area, that is our goal today, to make sure we can recover the unaccounted for,” he added.
“Hopefully we can find someone alive,” Neal said, adding that the teams will continue until they have “searched every inch.”
With an immense recovery effort looming, immediate concerns for residents’ safety and well-being were front and center, as cold weather began to bite in towns that resembled war zones.
Officials said 26,500 Kentucky customers remained without power Monday.
A non-denominational church in Mayfield was handing out food and clothing to storm survivors, while also providing space for the county coroner to do his work, said pastor Stephen Boyken of His House Ministries.
People “come with pictures, birthmarks — they talk now about using DNA samples to identify those who have been lost,” Boyken told AFP.
The storm system’s power placed it in historic company.
Storm trackers said it had lofted debris 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) into the air, and the Mayfield twister appeared to have broken an almost century-old record, tracking on the ground more than 200 miles (320 kilometers).
Mayfield, a town of about 10,000 near the westernmost tip of Kentucky, was perhaps the hardest hit community: city blocks were leveled, historic homes and buildings were beaten down to their slabs, tree trunks had been stripped of their branches and cars lay overturned in fields.
Randy Guennel, a 79-year-old retiree, survived two days with his sick wife in their destroyed home before finding shelter at a church north of Mayfield.
“We’ve worked so many years for all this and it’s up in smoke,” he said, choking back sobs. “We don’t have a house, no cars, no nothing.”