By Cheney Orr
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 the collapse live streamed a video from inside where she was trapped, her legs pinned under the rubble.
“I’m really scared,” Kyanna Parsons-Perez can be heard saying in a live video she shared on Facebook while she waited to be rescued. The screams and prayers of other workers, some in Spanish, pierce the almost complete darkness of the collapsed factory.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Parsons-Perez said in another video she shared after her rescue on Saturday, her birthday. “My legs, I couldn’t move them and I was just freaking out,” she said, calling the experience the scariest of her life.
In an interview that aired earlier in the day on NBC’s “Today” show, Parsons-Perez 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, but Graves County Jail https://www.facebook.com/gravescountyjailandrccenter said in a Facebook post it had “a few inmates working at the candle factory,” and that it had lost one staff member.
A warning had been issued in Mayfield ahead of the deadly tornadoes, both through the local TV station and the town’s siren, U.S. Representative James Comer, whose district includes Mayfield, told CNN in an interview.
He added the workers at the candle factory sheltered where they were supposed to and more people had evacuated to safety than previously thought.
“I don’t think the death loss there is going to be as high as we first feared,” Comer said.
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 estimated at least 100 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 Saturday afternoon, Beshear told reporters at a news conference.
The Graves County coroner earlier told CNN that 40 people remained unaccounted for at the factory.
(Reporting by Cheney Orr in Mayfield, Ky.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Nathan Layne and Maria Caspani; Editing by Chris Reese)