MAYFIELD, Ky.—On the day before Thanksgiving, Mayfield Consumer Products in western Kentucky posted photos online showing smiling employees lining up at a buffet table ready to enjoy a special pre-holiday meal together in the factory canteen.
On Friday night, the candle-making plant where workers had celebrated two weeks earlier lay in ruins, flattened by a devastating tornado during a late shift as more than 100 employees toiled inside. The next morning, 40 of them had been rescued; many of the rest were missing.
The tragedy came as Mayfield Consumer Products, which describes itself as a local, family-owned maker of candles, wax, and home fragrance goods, was seeking to expand its workforce, recently advertising job openings on its website and Facebook page.
Search-and-rescue teams on Saturday combed through the debris of the tornado-ravaged factory on the west side of Mayfield, a picturesque town near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the far southwestern corner of Kentucky.
Mayfield, a community of about 10,000 residents in Graves County, was transformed by the tornado into a landscape cluttered with damaged and demolished buildings, strewn debris, trees uprooted and stripped bare, twisted road signs, and sagging utility lines.
Among those said to be unaccounted for at the wrecked factory was an employee identified by family as Jill Monroe, 52, who was last heard from at 9:30 p.m., around the time the storm struck, according to her daughter, Paige Tingle.
Reached through Facebook on Saturday, Tingle told Reuters she had driven four hours to the factory site in the hopes of finding her mother, whose fate remains unknown.
“We don’t know what to think. We are extremely nervous. We don’t know how to feel, we are just trying to find her,” Tingle said. “It’s a disaster here. My thoughts go out to everyone.”
One employee who survived said she was trapped in the rubble for about two hours before rescue workers helped to free her.
“It was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Kyana Parsons-Perez said in an interview that aired on NBC’s “Today” show. “I did not think I was going to make it.”
Parsons-Perez recounted seeing the building’s lights flickering and feeling a sudden gust of wind through the factory as the twister struck, “and my ears kind of started popping as they would if you were on a plane.”
The building then rocked back and forth, “and boom, everything came down on us, and all you heard was screams,” she said. The business employs an ethnically and racially diverse workforce, including many Hispanic workers, “and you could hear people screaming ad praying in Spanish,” she recalled.
Parsons-Perez also said among those who rushed to the aid of trapped workers were a group of inmates from the nearby Graves County jail. “They could have used that moment to try to run away or anything, but they did not. They were there, helping us,” she said.
Her account of inmates assisting in rescue efforts could not be immediately verified, and it was not clear how or why prisoners from the local lockup ended up free from custody in the storm’s aftermath.
Addressing a news conference on Saturday, Mayfield fire chief Jeremy Creason said the factory site was “priority one” for his emergency crews, adding, “that’s where the bulk of our assets are right now.”
There were no immediate casualty estimates available for the factory or the surrounding community, one of the hardest-hit areas of a storm that carved a 200-mile-long path of destruction through several counties on Friday night. But Governor Andy Beshear said he was certain at least 70 people had perished in Kentucky as a whole.
About 110 people were believed to have been inside the candle-making plant when it was leveled by the twister, with 40 people rescued as of late Saturday morning, Beshear told reporters at a news conference.
The Graves County coroner later told CNN that 40 people remained unaccounted for at the factory.
By Cheney Orr