Dozens dead as tornadoes rip through US Midwest

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Night-shift workers were in the middle of the holiday rush, cranking out candles at Mayfield Consumer Products in Kentucky, when a tornado closed in on the factory and the word went out to seek shelter.

For Autumn Kirks, that meant throwing aside wax and fragrance buckets to make an improvised safe place.

She glanced away from her boyfriend, Lannis Ward, and when she looked back, he was gone.

Later in the day she got the news that Ward had been killed in the storm.

Tornado damage
Central Mayfield, Kentucky, before and after the tornado (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/AP)

The state was the worst hit by far in an unusual mid-December swarm of twisters across the Midwest and the South that levelled entire communities and left at least 14 people dead in Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.

But the factory toll, at least, will be lower than initially feared.

Governor Andy Beshear said Saturday that only 40 of the 110 people working in the factory at the time were rescued, and that “it’ll be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it”.

Midwest Tornadoes
A destroyed car among the debris (Michael Clubb/AP)

“Many of the employees were gathered in the tornado shelter and after the storm was over they left the plant and went to their homes,” said Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company.

“With the power out and no landline they were hard to reach initially. We’re hoping to find more of those eight unaccounted as we try their home residences.”

Mr Beshear had said on Sunday that the state’s death toll could exceed 100. But after state officials heard the company’s update, he said that later that it might be as low as 50.

Midwest Tornadoes
Houses were destroyed (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Rescuers at the candle factory had to crawl over the dead to get to the living at a disaster scene that smelled like scented candles.

By the time churchgoers gathered on Sunday to pray for the lost, more than 24 hours had elapsed since anyone had been found alive.

Instead, crews recovered pieces of peoples’ lives – a backpack, a pair of shoes and a mobile phone with 27 missed messages were among the items.

Midwest Tornadoes
Central Mayfield, Kentucky was levelled (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP)

“We’re going to get through this together, because that is what we do.”

Four twisters hit the state, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 200 miles, authorities said.

The outbreak was all the more remarkable because it came at a time of year when cold weather normally limits tornadoes.

Twelve people were reported killed in and around the town of Bowling Green alone.

Tornado damage
Homes and buildings in Mayfield before and after the tornado (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/AP)

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.”

“We’re going to have over 1,000 homes that are gone, just gone,” the governor said.

With afternoon high temperatures forecast only in the 40s, tens of thousands of people were without power. About 300 National Guard members went house to house, checking on people and helping to remove debris. Cadaver dogs searched for victims.

Ms Kirks said she and her boyfriend were about 10 feet apart in a hallway when someone said to take cover. Suddenly, she saw sky and lightning where a wall had been, and Ward had vanished.

Midwest Tornadoes
The weather caused catastrophic damage across several states (Mark Humphrey/AP)

“It was indescribable,” Pastor Joel Cauley said of the disaster scene.

“It was almost like you were in a twilight zone. You could smell the aroma of candles, and you could hear the cries of people for help. Candle smells and all the sirens is not something I ever expected to experience at the same time.”

The outbreak also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution centre 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.

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