Kentucky, Arkansas, Illinois… Lives swept away by tornadoes


Historic tornadoes by their violence have ravaged several American states. Our special envoy crossed ghost towns

« It was my big teddy bear. » This December 10, in the late afternoon, Autumn Kirks goes to Mayfield Consumer Products (MCP), the candle factory where she works nights with her boyfriend, Joe Ward. The weather forecast announces a big tornado, but Autumn is not worried: here, we have always lived with this kind of bad weather. After 9 p.m., the alerts multiplied on his phone. She heads for the lobby, where the employees take cover while the storm passes. Then she hears colleagues shouting: « All to the shelters! » She puts on her safety glasses and takes refuge in a corner.

Also read:Deadly tornadoes: shocked America

Around her, the walls vibrate violently. The wind rushes in, his ears begin to plug, as in a landing plane; a noise rises, deafening, like that of a train approaching at high speed. A huge “bang!” and then nothing. The factory just collapsed on top of her and the 110 other employees. The apocalypse lasted less than a minute. The tornado that hit is a 1 kilometer wide monster, traveling at 90 km / h. Autumn has never experienced such an earthquake, especially in winter: the hurricane season occurs in the spring, when the temperature and humidity increase. “As I turned to the left, there was only the sky streaked with lightning and a field of ruins,” she describes. A stranger saves her: he raises the concrete wall that has fallen on him. Once standing, she sees Joe, 3 meters away. She glances at the colleagues on her team to make sure they’re okay, then looks in her fiancé’s direction again. He’s not here anymore. Joe disappeared into the dark night and the rubble. She’s going to spend the weekend looking for him.

The factory has become a tomb. Forty of the 110 people present at the time of the tragedy were uprooted from the rubble

Autumn and Joe were a blended family of eight children; they had only one desire: to work as much as possible to afford the house of their dreams. With Christmas approaching, the factory needed help. Beautiful windfall. These days, everyone is happy to have a job. In Mayfield, a quiet town of 10,000 people in western Kentucky, the company enjoys a good reputation. « It’s as if the whole city had worked there, » testifies a resident whose father and grandfather are former employees. The pay is very correct compared to the standards in the area, as is the atmosphere. ” The MCP was founded by a local businesswoman, Mary VanDeVenter Propes, who once told the regional press that she was simply « lucky »: « I bought a building filled with small pots of food. for baby, I didn’t know what to do with it. So I went for the candle, and it worked. ” Profitable, the box becomes one of the main employers of Mayfield with more than 200 employees. The boss swears that « the key to success is skilled labor, which is hard to find. » In 2018, it invested more than $ 78 million to expand the plant, which translates into around fifty hires.

The governor at the time, Matt Bevin, greeted her as a « model business leader » attached to her roots … It didn’t matter that the company, a year later, was fined $ 16,000 for non-compliance with the rules. safety rules, or that it be sued – in vain – by an employee who claims to have been dismissed « because of [son] obesity ». In the sector, its existence is considered a miracle. Other bosses would have closed to relocate to China, the candle is not a booming business.

In recent months, however, the company has been operating at full speed. In mid-November, its website posted pictures of smiling employees queuing in front of a buffet in the canteen, on the occasion of a pre-Thanksgiving party. At the beginning of last week, the site published an ad offering seasonal jobs, asked to work on time slots ranging from « ten to twelve hours » daily, with overtime often compulsory. At the MCP, working-class and hard-working America parades. The 35 hours, not know. The situation is so tense on the employment front that the company has signed an agreement with the local prison to hire inmates. Attitude, it seems, rather well seen by the inhabitants. “They give them a second chance,” greets a resident.

Early evening on December 10. On the ground, the width of this type of column can reach 1.5 kilometers. © DR

A few hours before the devastation, the sirens of the city howled for the first time to warn of the imminent danger. Employees left to protect themselves, but most stayed. For them, it’s like the firefighter’s alert that sounds from the top of water towers in the provinces once a week: it’s part of folklore. Isaiah Holt, a 32-year-old temp who started at the factory two months earlier, posted a video on Snapchat where he is seen strolling with a glass of pink lemonade in his hand: “The only question I have is this. is: “Will I be able to take my dinner break in a quarter of an hour?” he jokes as we hear the sound of alarms in the background. A few hours later, new video, change of scenery: Isaiah films himself under the rubble. His face covered in dust, he winced at his broken ribs and pain in his lungs. « I love you all, I’m sorry, » he blurted out, panting. They’re coming to get us… ”In shock, he later asserted that he would never have held up if he hadn’t been in the US Army in the past,“ where soldiers are taught to survive ” .

Not far from him, Kyanna ParsonsPerez, also an employee, also alive, appears covered by five feet of rubble. She no longer feels her leg, stuck under a tilted water fountain, and she panics. Miraculously, his phone picked up the network. She logs onto Facebook Live and calls for help. « I don’t know who’s looking, but please come quickly and pray for us, we’re stuck in this, » she pleads. I have a wall that prevents me from getting up! As she speaks, calls for help can be heard, in English and Spanish, in almost total darkness.

The factory has become a tomb. Forty of the 110 people present at the time of the tragedy were uprooted from the rubble

Arrived on the scene, the rescuers have the greatest difficulty in clearing their way. Accompanied by sniffer dogs, they must step over the corpses. “The most sinister thing was the mixture between these desperate screams and the smell of the sweet perfume that escaped from the candles,” explains one of them. At 4 a.m. on Saturday, only 40 people, out of the 110 present at the time of the tragedy, were uprooted from the rubble. The military police blocked the road to leave it to the rescuers. The factory has become a tomb.

The home page of her website turned into a death announcement: « We are a family business and cherish our employees, » writes Troy Propes, the son of the retired founder who is still active. Answered the phone in the evening before referring us to a spokesperson… who never called back. She has set up a victim assistance fund but clearly expects to endure repeated trials of bereaved families. Over the weekend, relatives of employees marched into a non-denominational church located in a suburban prefabricated building. A pastor comforted them as best he could. At this same place, they learned whether their loved ones had been found and in what condition, dead or alive.

An unbearable wait. The anger rose. The questions rocketed. Some survivors even claim to have been forced to stay on pain of dismissal. Management denies. “We put their lives in danger, accuses Denise Cunningham, mother of Devyn, a 21-year-old employee, of whom she has no news. I intend to hold it to account. She called her son on his cell phone. It was one of her colleagues who dropped out. « She had spoken to him, he had instructed her to tell me that he loved me and that he was going to be okay. And since then, nothing.  » Autumn, she knows. At the end of the weekend, she learned that she would never see her « Teddy bear » again. Joe’s lifeless body was found under the rubble. For him, as for all employees, the Christmas tale turned into a nightmare.

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