• The San Juan Daily Star

Jail officer who led others to safety is among the 74 killed in tornadoes

Volunteers help with the cleanup efforts in Mayfield, Ky. on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, after a tornado swept across the region.

By Edgar Sandoval, Tariro Mzezewa and Christine Hauser

Robert Daniel, a veteran corrections officer at the county jail, was keeping a watchful eye on seven inmates assigned to work at a Kentucky candle factory when the sirens went off, warning of an oncoming tornado.

Daniel moved quickly to direct the inmates in his care, along with other workers, to a room with a heavy door designated as a “safety area.” Then he went back to look for others who might need help.

“The tornado hit. They turned around and he was gone,” said Pete Jackson, chief deputy at the Graves County Jail. Long after the storm had passed, Jackson said, Daniel’s body was found under the shattered building. The workers he had ushered to safety survived.

“He put his life in danger to help others. There is no other way to put it,” Jackson said Monday, as authorities across six states began to identify dozens of people killed over the weekend in the powerful tornadoes that leveled the candle factory and destroyed neighborhoods as far away as Arkansas and Illinois.

At least 74 people were confirmed dead in Kentucky alone, the youngest 5 months old, the oldest 86 years. So severe were the injuries and so remote some of the areas damaged that officials in Kentucky have not been able to identify 18 of those who died. Among the dead were a district judge in Bremen, Kentucky, a dispatcher at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois and at least 15 people on a single street in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

So wide was the swath of destruction wrought by four separate tornadoes in Kentucky — one of them a monster that cut a 223-mile path through the state — that deaths were tallied in eight counties. With more than 8,000 power poles down, about 25,000 customers were still without power Monday evening.

“Thousands of homes are damaged, if not entirely destroyed. It may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters Monday. “You stand in the middle of Mayfield or Dawson, where two-thirds of the town are gone, or in that town in Muhlenberg County, and it’s almost crushing how it feels.”

Stories of heroism and happenstance were unfolding across the region.

Eleven of the 15 people who died in Warren County, Kentucky, lived on a single street, Moss Creek Avenue, in Bowling Green, the county coroner said Monday. The youngest was 4 years old.

At the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, Kevin Dickey, a dispatcher, found himself in the path of the tornado as he was trying to get drivers to safety, according to his daughter, Kristen Anastasi. He did not survive.

“He deserved a little bit longer,” Anastasi said.

Dickey grew up in Wayne City and lived in Carlyle, both east of St. Louis. His daughter said she would always remember how he would make the “I love you” sign in American Sign Language — pinkie and index finger raised, middle and ring fingers folded down, his thumb out — each time they parted ways, even though no one in the family was deaf.

“At 42, that still happened,” she said.

Brian Crick, a district judge for Muhlenberg and McLean counties, died Saturday in Bremen, at age 43. Crick’s wife, Amanda, and two of their children were treated for injuries. His youngest child was not home when the storms hit.

Crick, an elder and Sunday school teacher at Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Kentucky, was known for his love of children, said Dana Brantley, a close friend of the Crick family’s.

“He always had a kid turned upside down, tossing them in the air,” Brantley said. “If something like this happened to someone else, he would have been leading the cleanup, he would have his work gloves on, be digging through the rubble, out with his saw helping. That’s just who he was.”

For the family of Daniel’s, the Mayfield corrections officer, Monday was a day for gathering at the Brown Funeral Home — one of the few structures in town unscathed by the widespread destruction — to make preparations for a final goodbye.

“He died helping people until the very end,” said a younger brother, Alonzo Daniel, 43. “That’s who he was.”

An officer for the Graves County Jail for eight years, Daniel had started a new job supervising inmates assigned to work at the candle factory last week — just days before the tornado struck.

Inmates and others who worked at the factory told county officials that after the sirens blasted, signaling that a tornado was on its way, Daniel quickly set to work getting people to the designated shelter area.

“He led many people to safety,” Alonzo Daniel said. “When they turned around, they did not see him anymore.”

Hearing that the tornado had struck, Alonzo Daniel and one of his brother’s seven children, Zach Daniel, rushed to the factory hoping for any signs of life. They found the building a shambles. Cars were piled on top of one another, others were on the remains of the building, and heavy equipment from a nearby John Deere store was scattered about.

“It was chaos,” Zach said. “I kept yelling: ‘Pops! Pops!’”

Alonzo Daniel said he also called out his brother’s name, hoping to hear his voice from the ruins. “But nothing,” he said.

Hours later, he was asked to identify the remains of a man whose body had been found at the site. His throat tightened when he recognized his brother, who was 6 feet tall and about 280 pounds, inside a body bag.

“My brother was a big man; I knew it was him before they unzipped the bag,” he said.

He mustered the courage to call all seven of his brother’s children and other relatives to share the news. “I had to tell them, ‘Your daddy is no longer here.’”

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