METRO ATLANTA — Rescuers combed through fields of wreckage after a tornado outbreak roared across the middle of the U.S., leaving dozens dead and communities in despair.
The system that brought wind and rain to Georgia Saturday was the same one that spawned at least 22 tornadoes across five states, including one that touched down for more than 200 miles in Kentucky.
Officials have confirmed that at least two EF-3 tornado touched down, one in Illinois near St. Louis, Missouri and another in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Authorities say at least 80 people died during the storms as of Sunday morning, including six in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution center was hit, four in Tennessee, two at an Arkansas nursing home and two in Missouri. They expect that number to continue to rise.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he expected upwards of 70 people were killed in his state, but as of Sunday, only 22 people were confirmed dead. Twelve of those victims were killed in Bowling Green.
The massive storm that barreled through southwestern Kentucky decimated the small town of Mayfield, where a candle factory with 110 workers inside was leveled. As of Sunday, forty people had been rescued from the rubble as crews continued to sift through wreckage.
“I pray that there will be another rescue. I pray that there will be another one or two,” Beshear said.
Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky. Twisted metal sheeting, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows and roofs were blown off the buildings that were still standing.
The missing at the candle factory included Janine Denise Johnson Williams, a 50-year-old mother of four whose family members kept vigil at the site Saturday.
“It’s Christmastime and she works at a place that’s making candles for gifts,” her brother, Darryl Williams, said. “To give up the gift of life to make a gift. We haven’t heard anything, and I’m not presuming anything. But I’m expecting for the worst.”
He said Johnson Williams called her husband overnight to report the weather was getting bad, the last time anyone heard from her.
Kyanna Parsons-Perez, an employee at the factory, was trapped under 5 feet (about 1.5 meters) of debris for at least two hours until rescuers managed to free her.
In an interview with NBC’s “Today,” she said it was “absolutely the most terrifying” event she had ever experienced. “I did not think I was going to make it at all.”
Just before the tornado struck, the building’s lights flickered. She felt a gust of wind, her ears started popping and then, “Boom. Everything came down on us.” People started screaming, and she heard other workers praying.
Kentucky State Trooper Sarah Burgess said rescue crews were using heavy equipment to move rubble at the candle factory. Coroners were called to the scene and bodies were recovered, but she didn’t know how many.
Rescue efforts were complicated because Mayfield’s main fire station and emergency services hub were also hit by the tornado, Creason said.
Channel 2′s Tony Thomas was in Mayfield, where he saw mile after mile of complete destruction and residents said the town was completely unrecognizable.
Business owner Mykell Tidwell stood in front of the rubble of what had been his livelihood.
“Last night we thought it was as bad as it could possibly be, but then you come back in the daylight and it’s even worse than you thought,” Tidwell told Thomas.
Zachary Daniel was one of the workers trapped in the collapse of the candle factory Friday night. He also lost his father in the storm.
“I’m hurting for real. He was a good dad. He loved his job for real,” he said.
Glimpses of hope remained, though, as Thomas caught up with Terra Utley as she searched for her pitbull who ran off when her home was blown off of its foundation.
“Nola! Oh my god!” Utley exclaimed as she found her beloved dog. “”Oh, my baby! I love you so much!”
If early reports are confirmed, the twister “will likely go down perhaps as one of the longest track violent tornadoes in United States history,” said Victor Gensini, a researcher on extreme weather at Northern Illinois University..
President Joe Biden released a statement Saturday, saying, “To lose a loved one like this is an unimaginable tragedy. We’re working with the governor to ensure they have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.”
Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration for Kentucky on Saturday and pledged to support the affected states.
Georgia governor Brian Kemp also issued a statement about storms, saying:
“Marty, the girls, and I join our fellow Americans in praying for the families facing the devastating loss caused by the tornadoes in Kentucky last night,” Kemp tweeted.
Six people were killed in the collapse of the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, with another injured worker airlifted to a hospital, fire Chief James Whiteford said.
Investigators searched the rubble throughout the day for additional victims and 45 people survived, Whiteford said. Authorities were uncertain Saturday evening whether anyone was still unaccounted because workers were in the midst of a shift change when it was struck by the tornado about 8:30 p.m. Friday.
“This is a devastating tragedy for our Amazon family and our focus is on supporting our employees and partners,” Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said in a written statement.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has been trying to organize workers at an Amazon facility in Alabama, criticized the company for keeping the Illinois site open during a weather emergency.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office said the storms killed at least two people in the state and initial assessments indicate they destroyed or did major damage to hundreds of homes and buildings.
Workers at a National Weather Service office had to take shelter as a tornado passed near their office in Weldon Spring, Missouri, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of St. Louis.
“This was an incredible storm that lasted a long time and covered a lot of territory,” said Larry Vannozzi, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office covering the Nashville area.
Meteorologists say the storm spawned multiple tornadoes.
In Arkansas, a tornado struck a nursing home in Monette, killing one and trapping 20 people inside as the building collapsed, Craighead County Judge Marvin Day told The Associated Press.
Another person died when the storm hit a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.
“Probably the most remarkable thing is that there’s not a greater loss of life,” Hutchinson said after touring the wreckage of the nursing home. “It is catastrophic. It’s a total destruction.”
Four storm-related deaths were confirmed in northwestern Tennessee, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said.
“This is about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said after touring the community of Dresden, which saw its downtown corridor ripped apart. “The whole town, the whole town.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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