MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s governor said at least 70 may have died in the state and the toll was climbing after tornadoes and severe weather ripped through at least five states, leaving widespread devastation.
Gov. Andy Beshear said the twister touched down for more than 200 miles in Kentucky and the death toll could exceed 100 across 10 or more counties.
“This has been the most devastating tornado event in our state’s history,” Beshear said at a news conference Saturday.
The storms hit a candle factory in Kentucky, an Amazon facility in Illinois and a nursing home in Arkansas. Beshear said about 110 people were in the Mayfield factory when the tornado hit.
By late morning, officials had confirmed 18 deaths. But Beshear said the toll was certain to rise, with at least 10 people feared dead in his state’s Muhlenberg County and an undetermined number in and around the city of Bowling Green.
Kentucky State Police Trooper Sarah Burgess said rescue crews were using heavy equipment to move rubble at the candle factory in western Kentucky. Coroners were called to the scene and bodies were recovered, but she didn’t know how many. She said it could take a day and potentially longer to remove all of the rubble.
Rescue efforts were complicated because Mayfield’s main fire station and emergency services hub were also hit by the tornado, said Jeremy Creason, the city’s fire chief and EMS director.
“We have been working tirelessly through the night,” he said. “We had to at times crawl over casualties to get to live victims to get them out.”
Multiple buildings in downtown Mayfield were destroyed. The tornado sheered the roofs off some, downed trees and left debris scattered across a wide area.
President Joe Biden tweeted Saturday that he was briefed on the situation and pledged the affected states would “have what they need as the search for survivors and damage assessments continue.”
Kyana 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 the “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 Hispanic workers praying in Spanish.
Among those who helped rescue the trapped workers were inmates from the nearby Graves County Jail, she said.
“They could have used that moment to try to run away or anything, but they did not. They were there, helping us,” she said. Elsewhere in Graves County, the landscape was a scene of devastation with uprooted trees, downed utility poles, a store destroyed and homes severely damaged.
At least one person died at an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, Police Chief Mike Fillback told reporters Saturday morning. The roof of the building was ripped off and a wall about the length of a football field collapsed.
Two people at the facility were taken to hospitals in St. Louis, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away, Fillback said. The chief said he did not know their medical conditions. About 30 people who were in the building were taken to the police station for evaluation.
Early Saturday, rescue crews were still sorting through the rubble. Fillback said the process could take several more hours. Cranes and backhoes were brought in to help move debris.
“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.
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. One person died and two others were injured in building collapses near the towns of Defiance and New Melle, both just a few miles from the weather service office.
A tornado struck the Monette Manor nursing home in Arkansas on Friday night, killing one and trapping 20 people inside as the building collapsed, Craighead County Judge Marvin Day told The Associated Press.
Five people had serious injuries, and a few others had minor ones, he said. 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.”
Three storm-related deaths were confirmed in Tennessee, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Two of the deaths occurred in Lake County, and the third was in Obion County — both in the northwestern corner of the state.
The storms swept through Bowling Green, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border, tearing roofs off homes and flinging debris into roadways. A GM Corvette Assembly Plant and the nearby Corvette Museum sustained light damage. A semitrailer was overturned and pushed against a building just across the street.
Western Kentucky University’s president said on Twitter that one of its student who lived off-campus was killed. The school called off commencement ceremonies that were planned for Saturday because the campus was without power.
Ronnie Ward, a Bowling Green police spokesman, said in a telephone interview that rescue efforts were hampered by debris strewn across roads. Ward said numerous apartment complexes in Bowling Green had major structural damage, and some factories had collapsed during the storms.
“Right now we’re focusing on the citizens, trying to get to everybody that needs us,” Ward said.
John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, and Jeff McMurray in Chicago contributed to this report. Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri.