• The San Juan Daily Star

In a Kentucky town hit by a tornado, anguish, worry — and feeling grateful to be alive

Mable Lovelace salvages some of her belongings in Mayfield, Ky., after an overnight tornado left at least 70 dead across four states, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

By Rick Rojas and Jamie McGee

Churches were reduced to rubble. The courthouse was wiped out. A building where the utility company parked its trucks had seemingly vaporized, taking the vehicles with it.

And the candle factory was nothing more than a spread of assorted debris. The only indication of what it once was: The scents of vanilla and lavender, along with aromas that conjured up springtime and fresh laundry — all from the chemicals used in the candles — were picked up by powerful winds.

“I don’t know how Mayfield will rebound,” Joe Crenshaw, 37, said as he stood along the perimeter of the factory Saturday afternoon, hoping to help, somehow, with efforts to find survivors in the rubble.

Mayfield, a city of roughly 10,000 people perched in the western corner of the state, is a community in shock. One person after the next told harrowing accounts of hiding as the tornado ripped through the town, sounding like a freight train. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky called it the worst tornado disaster in the state’s history. Of the 110 people working in the candle factory when the tornado hit, he said, just 40 have been rescued.

But amid anguish and worry, there was also gratitude among those who survived.

“By the grace of God, I woke up late,” said Jamal Morgan, 25, who had been scheduled to work an overnight shift at Mayfield Consumer Projects, the candle factory on the southwestern end of town.

Morgan, who has two young boys and had worked at the factory on and off for four years, had started working the overnight schedule “to get that extra dollar,” he said, “with Christmas around the corner.”

But he overslept, and then his car hydroplaned on his way in. He turned around and went home.

By Saturday, the grid of narrow streets in the heart of Mayfield had become a perilous maze of downed utility lines, dangling tree limbs and roads studded with metal and wood that could puncture tires. And yet the roads in much of the town were jammed as residents tried to assess just how much devastation their community had endured.

In one neighborhood, residents poked through the wreckage of what had once been their homes, searching for clothes and possessions they could save.

“This is either going to make Mayfield or break Mayfield,” Dashawntrey Cooper, 25, said. “It’s going to take more than just strength to come back from this.”

Kylan Galbreath, a running back for the Mayfield High School football team, said he hid with his dog, Scar, in his closet during the storm. His younger brothers, who are 6 and 8 years old, were with his mother in her closet.

The storm lasted five to 10 minutes. Afterward, his windows and doors were gone, along with some of the roof. Family portraits from other homes blew into his house.

“They were scared to death,” he said of his brothers. “I was scared, man.”

“We weren’t thinking about the damage at the time,” he added. “We were just glad we survived.”

He slept briefly in his bed with his brothers, under blankets to stay warm, after the storm and then joined other students to load supplies for others. “We all just need to be there for each other,” he said.

His cousin’s house was “completely gone” — “half the city is just gone,” Galbreath, 18, said. “It was heartbreaking. I feel like this is the last thing this city needed.”

Linda Oliver, 54, who had ridden out the storm at a friend’s house, was walking home Saturday morning, uncertain of what she would find. But as she got closer and closer, her hope diminished.

She did not know what time it was; her cellphone had died hours ago. She let the blistering wind steer her path.

“I’ve seen some houses and cried,” she said, feeling an urge to pray for the people who lived in them. “God, if they survived, thank you!”

The farther she walked, the more intense the destruction. She’d heard from others that she had not even seen the worst of it. Entire blocks had been nearly leveled.

“This is in God’s hands,” she said, bundled up, the wind at her back as she pressed on to see what was left of her own home.

D.J. Swant hurried into her cellar around 9 p.m. Friday. Local authorities had stressed just how bad the storm might be. “We took them at their word, and thank God we did,” she said.

Afterward, her bed was showered with tree limbs and glass from broken windows. The balcony was gone. Chimneys crumbled. A towering column had been shifted out of place.

Swant, a retired health care administrator from the Milwaukee area, moved with her husband to Mayfield six years ago, frustrated with the bitter cold of Wisconsin but more than anything lured by the grand old house, built in 1890. It had a balcony, seven fireplaces and some 6,000 square feet.

Her neighbors called it Dr. Jackson’s house, named after a longtime resident. People in the town regularly stopped by and talked to her and her husband. They wanted to see the improvements they had made to the house and thank them for putting in the effort to bringing back a historic home that had been empty for years.

On Saturday, neighbors were pulling up yet again, this time to see how she was doing.

“Our church is totally gone,” a neighbor who pulled up in a truck told Swant. “Nothing was salvageable except for the communion table.”

“That’s one of the reasons I love this place,” Swant said after the truck pulled away. “We’ll be OK,” she added. “We’ll be OK. It’ll take a while. But we’ll be OK.”

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