A devastating swarm of tornadoes ripped through six U.S. states, killing more than 70 people in Kentucky and leaving a trail of destroyed homes and businesses along a path that stretched more than 200 miles, officials said on Saturday.
Dozens were feared dead at a candle factory in western Kentucky where about 110 people were working when a powerful tornado ripped through the facility late on Friday, causing the roof to cave in.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said 40 of the 110 workers had been rescued from the factory so far.
“The level of devastation is unlike anything that I have ever seen,” Beshear said of the damage caused by the collection of twisters, with the primary tornado travelling more than 227 miles (365 km) across his state.
“Earlier this morning at about 5 a.m., we were pretty sure that we would lose over 50 Kentuckians. I’m now certain that number is north of 70. It may, in fact, end up exceeding 100 before the day is done.”
Beshear said 189 National Guard personnel have been deployed to assist with the recovery, with a focus on Mayfield, a small city of about 10,000 people in the southwestern corner of the state where it converges with Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
Fire and police stations in Mayfield were destroyed, hindering the emergency response. Mayfield is also home to the candle factory, which collapsed soon after employees heard howling winds and the lights began flickering, according to Kyanna Parsons-Perez, a worker at the plant.
“We could feel the wind … then we did a little rock,” she told NBC. “And then boom everything came down on us.”
Video and photos posted on social media showed brick buildings in downtown Mayfield reduced to rubble, with parked cars nearly buried under bricks and debris. The steeple on the Graves County courthouse in Mayfield appeared to have been toppled, photos on Twitter showed.
The genesis of the tornado outbreak was a series of overnight thunderstorms, including a super cell storm that formed in northeast Arkansas. That storm moved from Arkansas and Missouri and into Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Unfortunately it produced a couple of deadly tornadoes along the way. One of them may have been a long-track tornado,” Storm Prediction Center meteorologist Roger Edward said. “The killer tornado was part of that.”
President Joe Biden on Saturday directed that federal resources be surged to locations with the greatest need.
‘LIKE A TRAIN ROARING THROUGH TOWN’
One person was killed and five seriously injured when a tornado tore through a nursing home with 90 beds in Monette, Arkansas, a small community near the border with Missouri, according to Craighead County Judge Marvin Day.
“It just took a direct hit from the tornado,” Day told Reuters. “We were very blessed that more people weren’t killed or injured in that. It could have been a whole lot worse.”
A few miles away in Leachville, Arkansas, a tornado destroyed a Dollar General Store, killing one person, and laid waste to much of the city’s downtown, according to Lt. Chuck Brown of the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas.
“It really sounded like a train roaring through town.”
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Drone footage of the warehouse showed a chaotic scene in the early morning dark, with many emergency vehicles around the area and rescuers with flashlights combing through debris.
The roof appeared to have been peeled back off the metal skeleton of the building.
In Tennessee, the severe weather killed at least three people, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Flener said two died in Lake County and one in Obion County, but did not have any information about the circumstances of the deaths.
Shortly after midnight, the weather caused a CSX company freight train to derail in western Kentucky, although no crew were injured, a company spokesperson said.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said it received 36 reports of tornadoes touching down in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas, and Mississippi.