MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Rescuers in an increasingly bleak search picked through the tornado-splintered ruins of Kentucky homes and businesses Sunday, including a candle factory that was bustling with night-shift employees when it was flattened, as the governor warned that the state’s death toll from the outbreak could top 100.
Workers who had been rushing to produce Christmas candles sought refuge in what was supposed to be the safest part of the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, but it may not have mattered because the twister Friday night was so monstrous, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
Authorities on Saturday reported rescuing 40 of the 110 people who were in the building at the time, but by Sunday morning, more than 24 hours had elapsed since anyone had been pulled out alive.
“It’ll be a miracle if we pull anybody else out of that. It’s now 15 feet deep of steel and cars on top of where the roof was,” the governor said on CNN. “Just tough.’’
Jeremy Creason, Mayfield’s fire chief and emergency services director, said rescuers had to crawl over the dead to get to the living.
Kentucky was the worst-hit state by far in an unusual mid-December swarm of twisters across the Midwest and the South that leveled entire communities and left at least 14 people dead in five other states.
“I can tell you from reports that I’ve received I know we’ve lost more than 80 Kentuckians. That number is going to exceed more than 100,” Beshear said.
“I’ve got towns that are gone, that are just, I mean gone. My dad’s hometown – half of it isn’t standing. It is hard for me to describe. I know people can see the visuals, but that goes on for 12 blocks or more in some of these places.”
He said that going door to door in search of victims is out of the question in the hardest-hit areas: “There are no doors.” With afternoon high temperatures forecast only in the 40s, tens of thousands of people were without power.
Candle factory worker Autumn Kirks said she and her boyfriend, Lannis Ward, were about 10 feet apart in a hallway when someone said “Duck and cover!”
“I pulled my safety goggles down, jumped under the closest thing, and seconds later I looked to my left, and instead of wall there was sky and lightning and just destruction everywhere,” she said.
While checking on other workers, Kirks said, she glanced away from Ward, who was among the missing Sunday. “I remember taking my eyes off of him for a second, and then he was gone. I don’t know where he went, don’t have any idea,” she said.
Kirks was at a ministry center where people gathered, seeking information about the missing. One woman entered the building weeping, a state trooper came in with teddy bears, and a golden retriever was there to offer pet therapy.
The tornado that carved the path of destruction in Kentucky touched down for more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) in the state. Eleven people were reported killed in and around Bowling Green alone.
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.
The storm was all the more remarkable because it came in December, when normally colder weather limits tornadoes.
The outbreak also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed and the governor said workers shielded residents with their own bodies; and two in Missouri.
Debris from destroyed buildings and shredded trees covered the ground in Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky. Twisted sheet metal, downed power lines and wrecked vehicles lined the streets. Windows were blown out and roofs torn off the buildings that were still standing.
In the shadows of their crumpled church sanctuaries, two congregations in Mayfield came together on Sunday to pray for those who were lost. Members of First Christian Church and First Presbyterian Church met in a parking lot surrounded by rubble, piles of broken bricks and metal.
“Our little town will never be the same, but we’re resilient,” Laura McClendon said. “We’ll get there, but it’s going to take a long time.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the weather researcher. It is Gensini, not Genzini.
Associated Press writers Kristin Hall in Mayfield; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Seth Borenstein in Washington; and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.