(NEW YORK) — As rescue workers combed miles of splintered houses and commercial buildings for survivors and the dead in Kentucky and seven other states devastated by a string of tornadoes, stories of horror and resilience emerged on Sunday.
Sunday services were held in the parking lot of a Kentucky church that stood no more. A man who was buried alive with co-workers in a collapsed candle factory spoke of how he defied death. And an overwhelmed fire chief in one of the hardest-hit towns cited hazards facing his crews as they geared up for another day of searching through the rubble, hoping to find someone still alive.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said at least 50 people were killed in western Kentucky, and the death toll from what he described as “the most devastating tornado event in our state’s history” could exceed 100.
“To the people of America, there is no lens big enough to show you the extent of the damage here in Graves County, or in Kentucky. Nothing that was standing in the direct line of this tornado is still standing,” Beshear said during a Sunday afternoon news conference with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The governor said no one has been recovered alive since 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
He said the swarm of tornadoes left damage in 18 different counties and destroyed thousands of homes, as the death toll in four counties has surpassed double digits.
“I think the best that we can hope for would be the 50 (deaths). But I think it’s going to be significantly worse than that,” Beshear said. “Remember, we’re still finding bodies.”
He said at least 300 state National Guard members have been deployed across the state to help in the search for survivors.
Dr. Grant Fraser, an emergency department physician at TriStar Greenview Regional Medical Center in Bowling Green, told ABC News that the 22-bed hospital was quickly inundated with patients in the storm’s immediate aftermath.
“They had severe, severe injuries — crush injuries to their head, chest, spinal injuries, multiple penetrating injuries,” Fraser said of the patients. “So, there’s a combination of both tornado and flying objects penetrating people. Blunt force trauma, walls, ceilings that have fallen on people with severe crush injuries.”
In Mayfield, Kentucky, a worker in a candle factory that was flattened by a twister as he and more than 100 other workers were inside, told ABC News it was unfathomable he made it out alive.
Dakota, a worker at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, recalled the moment the tornado hit the facility, ripping off the roof and sending debris raining down on him and his colleagues.
“We were toward the back, toward the bathrooms. And then the top of the building got ripped off,” Dakota, who asked that his last name not be published, told ABC News. “And then we told everyone, ‘Get down!’ I started pushing people under the water fountain. We were trapped.”
Dakota said he and a co-worker used a fire hydrant to prop up the water fountain, which they never thought they’d have to use as a life-saving shelter, until they had no other choice. He said that they stayed put under the fountain for two hours, listening to the swirling winds and screams of colleagues from other areas of the torn-apart factory.
“We were able to dig our way out,” Dakota said. “And then, after we got out, we started pulling the rest of our team out. And then, we were able to get first responders to the areas that were needed. I found people — broken legs, pulling them out. Some were non-responsive. It was rough.”
Beshers said that about 40 people were rescued at the candle factory. The company’s CEO, Troy Propes, told ABC News Sunday night that eight workers were confirmed dead, 94 have been located and eight remain unaccounted for. At the time of the storm, 110 workers were inside the factory.
He noted that many employees were not able to communicate after the storm because of communication and power issues, which is why it took officials some time to confirm their safety.
Lora Capps was on her tenth day on the job at the candle factory when the storm hit.
She told ABC News she and a janitor took shelter in a bathroom and they fell into a hole in the ground under the debris. The janitor did not make it, according to Capps.
“He kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and I said, ‘I’m trying.’ I want his family to know I tried my best. I said, ‘Just go be with God, and I’ll probably be following you,"” she told ABC News.
Capps said three men with flashlights found her and helped her to safety. Later, she was reunited with her son, who searched the debris.
But Capps said she is still left waiting to find out who of her co-workers survived.
“This is going to traumatize me for the rest of my life,” she said.
Mayfield Fire Chief Jeremy Creason told Good Morning America that emergency crews faced another day of challenges, calling the ongoing search operation at the candle factory “a very complicated rescue situation.”
“We’ve got a lot of heavy equipment, a lot of personnel. We’re dealing with tons of steel and metal that’s twisted and mangled … chemicals, and there’s just a lot going on on that scene,” Creason said on Sunday.
He described the rescue operation as “one of the most difficult situations that I’ll probably — that we’ll probably — ever face in our life.”
But even while surrounded by the devastation, Creason expressed hope.
“This is going to leave a mark on our community,” Creason said. “But you know, we’ll rebuild. We’ll bounce back. I have a very resilient group of first responders that I get the pleasure to serve with every day. And I couldn’t be more proud of them. And over the next few months and years, you’re going to see our community do the same thing. We’ll come back stronger than we were before.”
Chief Justice John Minton of the Kentucky Supreme Court confirmed that a district court judge, he identified as Brian Crick, was among those killed in the Western Kentucky tornado outbreak.
“This is a shocking loss to his family, his community and court system, and his family is in our prayers,” Minton said in a statement.
Minton added that a tornado caused heavy damage to the Graves County Courthouse in Mayfield.
Elsewhere in Mayfield, a parking lot prayer and communion service was held at the First Christian Church, one of three churches in downtown Mayfield that were destroyed or heavily damaged in the storm.
Milton West, the senior minister at First Christian, told congregants in attendance, “This is a necessary gathering.”
“I am convinced and I know how heartbroken you are,” West said during the service. “There aren’t words that I can say to take that feeling away.”
He informed the congregation of one artifact from the church that survived.
“Despite the fact that our sanctuary is demolished, the central place where we gather, a communion table survived. It is undamaged and unscathed,” West said. “We think that speaks volumes and what it says to us more than anything else is that we will always have a table to gather around and that because it survived, we know in our hearts that everyone is welcome around that table.”
There were at least 40 reported tornadoes across nine states between Friday night and early Saturday morning, cutting multiple paths of destruction across Kentucky, Arkansas, southern Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio.
The National Weather Service on Sunday classified the tornado as an EF-3. The NWS estimated the tornado’s maximum width to be about three-quarters of a mile wide.
The twister that wrecked the Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, was also an EF-3 with peak winds up to 155 mph, according to the NWS. Two other EF-3 tornadoes were reported, one in Defiance, Missouri, and the other in Bowling Green, which packed winds of up to 150 mph.
A tornado that touched down in Hopkins County, Kentucky, derailed a 27-car freight train. Rescue workers said one train car picked up by the twister landed on a house 75 yards from the train tracks.
Mayorkas and Criswell toured the devastated areas of Kentucky on Sunday and pledged all the help state residents will need to recover and rebuild.
Beshears said that more than $2.5 million in donations have poured in from across the country to help devastated communities and pay for funeral costs.
President Joe Biden declared that a state of emergency in Kentucky on Saturday and ordered federal assistance to support the local response efforts.
On Sunday night, he updated his declaration, making federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Caldwell, Fulton, Graves, Hopkins, Marshall, Muhlenberg, Taylor and Warren. He also made it possible for residents to get assistance, such as grants for temporary housing or business repairs.
“We want to focus today and the next day on life-saving. We really want to make sure that we find anybody who’s still might be trapped in the rubble across all of these states,” Criswell said Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week.
Criswell added, “But then it’s going to be a long recovery and we really need to focus on how we’re going to help these communities with their immediate needs, their immediate sheltering needs and the long-term housing needs that are going to be really needed to help these communities and these families rebuild.”
ABC News’ Victor Oquendo, Reena Roy, Marcus Moore, Joshua Hoyos and Daniel Peck contributed to this report.
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