Dozens killed after tornadoes hit several U.S. states

The death toll in Kentucky from a monstrous tornado continued to climb Saturday after severe weather ripped through at least five states the night before, leaving widespread devastation.

'The most devastating tornado event in our state's history,' says Kentucky governor

Tornadoes and severe weather cause catastrophic damage in Kentucky.

2 years ago
Duration 2:13
Devastation caused by tornadoes and extreme weather have ripped through Kentucky. Search and rescue efforts are underway as dozens are feared dead.

The death toll in Kentucky from a monstrous tornado continued to climb Saturday after severe weather ripped through six U.S. states the night before, leaving widespread devastation.

In Kentucky alone, 22 were confirmed dead by Saturday afternoon, including 11 in and around Bowling Green. But Gov. Andy Beshear said upward of 70 people may have died when a twister touched down for more than 320 kilometres in his state, and the number of deaths could ultimately exceed 100 across 10 or more counties when the searches are complete.

"This has been the most devastating tornado event in our state's history," Beshear said.

The death toll of 36 across five states includes six people in Illinois, where an Amazon facility was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed; and two in Missouri.

If early reports are confirmed, the twister "will likely go down perhaps as one of the longest track violent tornadoes in United States history," said Victor Gensini, a researcher on extreme weather at Northern Illinois University.

The longest tornado on record, in March 1925, tracked for about 355 kilometres through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. But Gensini said this twister may have touched down for nearly 400 kilometres. The storm was all the more remarkable because it came in December, when normally colder weather limits tornadoes, he said.

This map shows tornadoes reported in several U.S. states on Friday and Saturday. The data was provided by the National Weather Service via The Associated Press. (CBC News)

Beshear said about 110 people were working overnight in a candle factory in Mayfield when the tornado roared through — 40 of them were rescued Saturday morning.

"I pray that there will be another rescue. I pray that there will be another one or two," Beshear said, as crews sifted through the wreckage of the factory.

Kentucky State Police Trooper Sarah Burgess said search-and-rescue teams are still going through the rubble of the candle factory but don't yet have a number for how many people have died.

"We just can't confirm a number right now because we are still out there working, and we have so many agencies involved in helping us," Burgess said.

She said rescue crews are using heavy equipment to move rubble at the candle factory in western Kentucky. Coroners have been called to the scene and bodies have been recovered, but she didn't know how many. She said it could take a day and potentially longer to remove all of the rubble.

'Expecting for the worst'

The missing at the candle factory included Janine Denise Johnson Williams, a 50-year-old mother of four whose family members kept vigil at the site on Saturday.

"It's Christmastime and she works at a place that's making candles for gifts," her brother, Darryl Williams, said. "To give up the gift of life to make a gift. We haven't heard anything, and I'm not presuming anything. But I'm expecting for the worst."

He said Johnson Williams called her husband overnight to report that the weather was getting bad, the last time anyone heard from her.

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."

Emergency response workers dig through the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday. Tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across multiple states late Friday, killing several people overnight. (Timothy D. Easley/The Associated Press)

'Everything came down on us'

Kyana Parsons-Perez, a factory employee, was trapped under 1.5 metres of debris for at least two hours until she was freed by rescuers.

In an interview with the Today show, she said it was "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."

The collapsed Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, where workers were present when a tornado came through during the night in Mayfield, Ky., is pictured on Saturday. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

6 dead at Amazon warehouse

In Edwardsville, Ill., six people were killed in the collapse of an Amazon warehouse while another injured worker was airlifted to a hospital, fire Chief James Whiteford said.

Investigators searched the rubble throughout the day for additional victims and 45 people survived, Whiteford said. Authorities were uncertain Saturday evening whether anyone was still unaccounted because workers were in the midst of a shift change when it was struck by the tornado about 8:30 p.m. Friday.

Safety personnel and first responders survey a damaged Amazon distribution centre in Edwardsville, Ill., on Saturday. (Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

"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. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has been trying to organize workers at an Amazon facility in Alabama, criticized the company for keeping the Illinois site open during a weather emergency.

Nursing home resident, student among victims

A tornado struck the Monette Manor nursing home in Monette, Ark., on Friday night, killing one person 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. The nursing home has 86 beds.

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."

Barbara Richards, a licensed practical nurse who was working at the Monette Manor nursing home as a tornado destroyed the complex, pauses while viewing damage in Monette, Ark., on Saturday. (Joe Rondone/USA Today Network/Reuters)

Gov. Bill Lee on Saturday toured tornado-torn parts of western Tennessee, where four people were killed.

Lee travelled to Tiptonville and then Dresden, a small town of about 3,000 that saw its downtown corridor ripped to shreds.

"This is about the saddest thing I've ever seen," Lee said, who has had three fatal tornadoes rip through the state during his first term in office. "The whole town, the whole town."

Beth May walks around her backyard with her chickens Saturday after her house was hit by a tornado in Bowling Green, Ky. (Michael Clubb/The Associated Press)

With files from Reuters