Courtney Wooldridge, her husband and their two kids were asleep in their Campbellsville, Kentucky home on Friday night when they got an alert of a possible tornado threatening the state. About an hour later, their home was razed to the ground by a deadly tornado that likely had the longest reported path in U.S. history.
“I am not sure I have even processed [it] yet,” Wooldridge, a 36-year-old mother of two, told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “It both happened fast and in slow motion at the same time. We have never experienced anything like this before.”
The Wooldridges are among hundreds of Kentuckians whose homes were obliterated. “We have to start all over again,” the high school geometry teacher added. Our daughters are so calm but my husband and I are devastated. But God protected us.”
At least 70 people were killed in Kentucky, mostly in a candle factory that collapsed, and the death toll may “end up exceeding 100 before the day is done,” Gov. Andy Beshear said Saturday. President Joe Biden on Saturday afternoon approved an emergency declaration for affected counties in Kentucky.
“This will be the deadliest tornado system to ever run through Kentucky,” he said. “There are a lot of families that need your prayers.”
At least 30 tornadoes were reported in six states, including Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kentucky, leaving a wave of destruction. The main Kentucky tornado, which touched down in northeastern Arkansas and stayed on the ground for about 227 miles into Kentucky, likely had the longest reported tornado path in history. (A typical damage path is about a mile.) According to PowerOutage.US, at least 331,549 utility customers in four states have been left without power as temperatures drop.
For the Wooldridges, who live about an hour outside of Frankfort, the warning of a possible tornado woke them up but they weren’t alarmed initially.
“This happens multiple times a year and we usually wait until there is a second warning to go downstairs,” Wooldridge said.
When that second warning came in at around 3 a.m, Wooldridge said she headed down to the basement, where she and her husband had already put their daughters to sleep.
“My husband stayed upstairs for a minute and as he came downstairs, the walls started to cave in on the house. A wall hit him and knocked him down,” Wooldridge said, adding that she sustained bruises on both sides of her legs, though she doesn’t remember falling down during the terrifying ordeal.
Once the storm passed through after an agonizing 30 minutes, Wooldridge said one of their neighbors, whose house was the only one on the block not been flattened by the tornado, rushed over to pull them from the debris.
“There was rubble everywhere. Our house is completely gone,” she said, adding that residents in the town of about 10,000 have been going out of their way to bring clothes and supplies as the Wooldridges begin the journey to restart their lives.
Wooldridge’s 20-year-old niece Maria Oliver, who lives in Nashville, said the whole family is “shaken up” by the prospect that “it could have been so much worse.”
“My aunt just keeps saying to me ‘I am vertical and my family is vertical that’s all that matters’” Oliver, who started a GoFundMe campaign to help the family, told The Daily Beast.
Some of the worst carnage was in Mayfield, about three hours away from the Wooldridges, where a candle factory collapsed with more than 110 workers inside. Beshear said Saturday afternoon that 40 people were rescued and “it’ll be a miracle if anyone else is found alive in [the rubble].”
One factory worker, Kyanna Parsons-Perez, said workers were huddled in an emergency room when they felt some rumbling, then a gust of wind, then “boom, the roof collapsed on us.”
She told MSNBC that her legs were pinned underneath a water fountain and an air conditioning unit. Colleagues who weren’t completely trapped started trying to tear through dry wall and dig each other out of the debris, but they couldn’t move the air conditioning unit.
When rescue crews finally got to her, she couldn’t feel her legs and was told she had five feet of debris on top of her.
“It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced,” she told MSNBC. “For the most part, I stayed calm but I lost it there for a while when I couldn’t feel my legs. A sense of hopelessness started to take over, I didn’t think anybody would get me.”
Mayfield Fire and EMS Chief Jeremy Creason said rescuers “had to, at times, crawl over casualties to get to live victims to get them out, and mark those casualties as we work our way through the rubble. That’s just a picture of what they’re dealing with down there.”
His staff were battling their own carnage, too. Crews at Mayfield’s main fire station had to be “extricated” when the building was destroyed in the tornado—and they then went out to fight four fires. The police station was also destroyed.
“It’s going to be a long, difficult job,” Creason said Saturday of the search and rescue efforts at the candle factory, which remains their main priority. A city-wide curfew will be in place from 7 p.m. local time.
“Our hearts are broken. Because the people we work with, the people we know, our families, are hurting,” Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan said at a press briefing.
In Arkansas, two residents of the Monette Manor nursing home were killed, and five were seriously injured, after the tornado tore the building to shreds, causing the roof to collapse.
Marvin Day, the Judge of Craighead County, Arkansas, issued a state of emergency and said about 20 people were rescued after being trapped in the wreckage of the nursing home.
“It looks like it’s pretty much destroyed,” Day was quoted as telling the AP. “… It happens quick but apparently there was a little bit of time with tornado sirens going off.”
In Edwardsville, Illinois, a storm took the roof off of an Amazon distribution center, and at least two people died. Local media reported that as many as 100 staffers were inside the warehouse at the time of the collapse.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency confirmed Saturday that three people were killed in the overnight storms in Obion and Lake Counties. A fire station in Samburg, Tennessee, took a direct hit from a tornado late Friday, with multiple people unable to escape the building, the Obion County Sheriff’s office confirmed to The Daily Beast.
A tornado hit another nursing home and fire station in Trumann, Tennessee later in the evening, causing substantial damage, according to local station KAIT.
The National Weather Service warned Friday that at least 25 million people were under threat from massive thunderstorm systems tearing through the region.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Saturday that the president has been briefed on the disaster and is “heartbroken by the devastation.”
“We are in touch with state and local officials as they search for survivors and damage assessments continue, and will provide the Federal government’s full support as needed,” Psaki added.