• The San Juan Daily Star

At Amazon site, tornado collided with company’s peak delivery season

Safety personnel and first responders outside the damaged Amazon delivery depot on Saturday in Edwardsville, Ill.

By Karen Weise and Eric Berger

Nearly every day as Christmas nears, Amazon’s share of online sales typically rises, as customers turn to the e-commerce giant to quickly deliver packages. To make that happen, Amazon hires hundreds of thousands of additional workers, both full-time employees and contractors, and runs its operations at full tilt.

One of them, Alonzo Harris, drove his cargo van into Amazon’s delivery depot in Edwardsville, Illinois, after 8 p.m. Friday after a full day delivering packages north of St. Louis. Suddenly, an alarm blared on his work phone. Someone yelled that this was not a drill. Harris, 44, ran into a shelter on Amazon’s site and heard a loud roar.

“I felt like the floor was coming off the ground,” he said. “I felt the wind blowing and saw debris flying everywhere, and people started screaming and hollering and the lights went out.”

One of the tornadoes that roared through Kentucky, Arkansas, Illinois and other states Friday had plowed straight into Amazon’s delivery station in Edwardsville. The toll was grim: Six people died, with 45 making it out alive, according to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

On Sunday, authorities said there were no additional reports of missing people but that search efforts were continuing. It was initially unclear how many people had been at Amazon’s site and what safety measures could have been taken to minimize the loss of life. The tornado was ferocious, ripping off the building’s roof. Two of the structure’s 40-foot-high concrete walls collapsed.

The tornado coincided with a peak in the company’s workforce. Americans’ reliance on Amazon soon turned the deaths at the delivery depot into a focus of the public as the tornadoes’ toll became clear over the weekend.

At a church service Sunday at Thrive Church in Granite City, Illinois, about 15 miles from the destroyed Amazon site, clergy and congregants tried to make sense of the disaster and the company’s response.

“It’s not lost on me, Lord, that this was an Amazon warehouse, and I, like so many other people in this country, get irritated if I can’t get my Christmas gifts in three days from Amazon,” Sharon Autenrieth, the pastor, said during the service.

That logistical peak also complicated the rescue effort in Edwardsville. The more than 250,000 drivers like Harris who fuel Amazon’s delivery network do not work directly for the company but instead are employed by more than 3,000 contractor companies. On Saturday, Mike Fillback, the police chief in Edwardsville, said authorities had “challenges” in knowing “how many people we actually had at that facility at the time because it’s not a set staff.”

Only seven people at Amazon’s site were full-time employees, said a Madison County commissioner who declined to give his name. He said most were delivery drivers in their 20s who work as contractors.

On Sunday, Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said about 190 people worked at the delivery station across all of its shifts but declined to comment on how many were full-time workers. She said the tornado formed in the parking lot, hit and then dissipated.

The tornado struck at the end of a shift, as drivers returned their vans, unloaded items and headed home. Contract drivers are not required to clock into the building, Nantel said.

Workers there sheltered in two places, she said, and one of those areas was directly struck. These areas are typically fortified, although it was unclear if they were built to withstand a direct tornado strike. Based on preliminary interviews, Nantel said, the company calculated that about 11 minutes elapsed between the first warning of a tornado and when it hit the delivery station.

The six victims ranged in age from 26 to 62, the Edwardsville police department said Sunday.

Amazon’s model of using contractors is part of a huge push that the company started in 2018 to expand its own deliveries, rather than rely solely on shipping companies such as UPS. The company built a network of delivery stations, such as the one in Edwardsville, which are typically cavernous, single-story buildings.

Carla Cope and her husband, said their son, Clayton, 29, was a maintenance mechanic contracting for Amazon. They spoke to him by phone Friday night when he was at work, they said, and he assured them that he and other workers were on their way to the tornado shelter on site.

About 10 minutes later, the tornado struck. The Copes tried numerous times to reach their son again by phone. They eventually drove to the warehouse from their home in Brighton, Illinois, a half-hour away.

“When we pulled up to the building it was pretty devastating,” Cope said. “There were trucks and rescue vehicles everywhere, a lot of chaos.”

When her husband saw the damage, he immediately feared the worst, Cope said. He works the same job as a maintenance mechanic that their son did, splitting the night shifts except Wednesdays, when the two work together. He knew that their son was likely to have been in the part of the building that collapsed, she said.

The couple waited at the building until 4:30 a.m., when officials informed them that they had recovered their son’s body.

“There’s just really no words to describe it when they tell you your son’s dead,” said Cope, her voice cracking. “It’s surreal, unbelievable, devastating.”

Harris, the delivery driver who survived the storm, said that after the tornado passed, he saw a green tornado shelter sign still hanging above Amazon’s shelter.

“I doubt anything man-made can withstand Mother Nature’s force,” he said. “I think it was an act of God that our shelter remained secure.”

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