Everyone’s hopes for a lower death toll in Kentucky came true on Sunday night as the candle factory—where 110 workers were working an overnight shift on Friday as a deadly twister hit—announced that it has been able to reach 90 survivors.
The company’s HR staff worked through the night Saturday into Sunday to call the emergency contact numbers for the missing as more power and phone lines came back online.
Sadly, eight employees were also confirmed dead, while another eight are still missing, according to company spokesperson Bob Ferguson.
“Many of the employees were gathered in the tornado shelter and after the storm was over, they left the plant and went to their homes,” Ferguson said. “With the power out and no landline, they were hard to reach initially. We’re hoping to find more of those eight unaccounted as we try their home residences.”
Workers said they had been told to huddle in a central hallway area, the strongest part of the building, as the storm approached. Some had already left earlier in the night following a warning siren.
Although state authorities have yet to officially confirm the report, the announcement means there will likely be a sharp drop in the number of estimated deaths for Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in western Kentucky—bringing much-needed relief to families and the community just 40 hours out from what the governor described as the most devastating event in Kentucky’s history.
“We are still hoping as we move forward for some miracles, to find more people, and to hopefully have a lower death count than what we expect,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters Sunday night after the company’s announcement. He added that it would be “pretty wonderful” if confirmed, adding that authorities are working to verify the information.
Troy Propes, CEO of the candle factory, said on Sunday that Mayfield Consumer Products had already seen two miracles on Saturday, when two workers were pulled out of the rubble. One colleague had remained with a trapped survivor, holding their hand until rescuers could get to them, he told ABC News.
Beshear said that as cell phones remain down for many communities, authorities are having a hard time confirming the numbers of missing, dead, and injured.
“We know we’re going to have at least four counties that are in double digits. Again the best that we can hope for would be the 50 [confirmed fatalities],” he said of the state’s death count. “We’re still finding bodies.”
Thousands have been left without a home as four twisters hit the state, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 200 miles in Kentucky and another 20 miles across state borders, authorities said.
The outbreak has also killed at least six people in Illinois, where an Amazon distribution center was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas; and two in Missouri.
But Beshear said that despite the destruction, he is firstly grateful. He thanked first responders for their “incredible heroism,” and Americans from other cities and states for their “outpouring of love.” Kentucky’s requests for assistance, including for ongoing search and rescue efforts, have all been met, he said.
“I want to thank everybody for standing with the people of Kentucky, we feel it. In fact, one of our biggest challenges right now is organizing the amount of people that want to help, want to donate … that’s the best challenge that any of us could ask for.”
The state’s Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund had already received $2.3 million dollars from 18,031 donations, of which every penny of which will go to families, starting with grants for funeral assistance, the governor added.
Beshear also thanked President Joe Biden “who called me three times” Saturday and immediately granted the federal state of emergency, which allowed FEMA to move resources in quickly to start with initial response efforts.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who was visiting impacted regions, told reporters, “You can’t understand how this has impacted these communities until you’re there, which is why it’s so important for me to be here, to see it for myself, so we can make sure we’re providing the right level of assistance to help with your response and your ongoing recovery.”
She told Kentuckians that FEMA is ready to help communities as they face housing, power, and fuel shortfalls.
“We did receive a few moments ago a request from the governor for a major emergency declaration,” she added, hinting that it would be approved soon.
Biden approved the disaster declaration just hours later for impacted individuals in Caldwell, Fulton, Graves, Hopkins, Marshall, Muhlenberg, Taylor, and Warren counties.
“The major emergency declaration is going to begin to help individuals. You can go to disasterassistance.gov, we’ll also assist with long-term repair of critical infrastructure destroyed in the storm,” Criswell said.
When asked by reporters if the disaster presented a “new normal” for Kentucky, in reference to concerns about climate change, Beshear said, “Right now, I can’t process whether this is a new normal or not, we’re just trying to identify the dead, locate the living, reunite families, trying to give people a place to stay and something to eat … All the rest of it, over time, we can talk about.”
He then asked the media to, “Please, just focus on our people and the help that they need and deserve.”
He also told residents, “I wish I understood why we’ve gotten hit with the pandemic, a historic ice storm, flooding, and now the worst tornado in our history, all within a span of 19 months. What I do know is in Kentucky, we’re good people and we care about one another. And that’s why people were out in the storm helping their neighbors and others they don’t know … It’s why we have opened 13 shelters, but only have six open anymore because we take each other into our homes.”
“We’re going to grieve together, we’re gonna dig out and clean up together. We will rebuild and move forward together,” the governor said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.