The Mayfield Consumer Products factory was the third-biggest employer in this corner of western Kentucky, an important economic engine that churned out candles that lined the shelves of malls around the U.S.
But why its workers kept making candles Friday night as a tornado bore down on the region remains unclear as rescuers continue scouring the factory wreckage for signs of life.
Kentucky’s governor said Sunday the ferocity of the storm was so great that there was nowhere safe to hide inside the plant.
“It appears most were sheltering in the place they were told to shelter,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “I hope that area was as safe as it could be, but this thing got hit directly by the strongest tornado we could have possibly imagined.”
Of the 110 workers overnight Friday, Beshear said early Sunday that only 40 were rescued and it would be a miracle if any more were found alive. He said later on Sunday that it might be a “better situation” than initially feared as the state works to verify a worker headcount provided by the factory.
Some workers said they had been told to huddle in a central hallway area, the strongest part of the building, as the storm approached.
“That’s where everybody is supposed to go,” said Autumn Kirks, who worked at the plant with her boyfriend, who is still missing. “We stopped everything and tried to get as sheltered as we could.”
Kirks said an earlier weather warning siren during her shift prompted some workers to leave for the night.
“I know a lot of the workers left. We thought about it but decided against it,” she said.
The factory where she and her boyfriend worked employs many people in and around Mayfield, a city of about 10,000 in Kentucky’s southwest corner. It is Graves County’s third-biggest employer, according to the county’s website. Even some inmates at the county jail have worked there.
Scented candles made in the plant eventually found their way onto the shelves of prominent retailers like Bath & Body Works. The Ohio retailer said in a statement it was “devastated by the horrible loss of life at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory – a long-standing partner of ours.”
And this was high season in Mayfield for turning out gift candles as Christmas approaches. Shortly before the disaster, the company had posted on Facebook that it was looking to hire more people for 10- to 12-hour shifts involving fast-paced work and mandatory overtime.
Most American candle-makers used to complete their holiday orders by early November, but labor shortages and other economic trends tied to the COVID-19 pandemic have extended crunch time well into December, said Kathy LaVanier, CEO of Ohio-based Renegade Candle Company and a board member at the National Candle Association.
LaVanier said candle-makers around the U.S. are horrified by what happened in Kentucky and are trying to find ways to help. Unlike many manufactured products, most candles sold in the U.S. are American-made, in part thanks to hefty and longstanding tariffs on Chinese-made candles.
“All of us in the candle business are reeling,” she said. “It could have been any of us.”
LaVanier said regular disaster drills are important at candle plants, especially to include temporary workers who might have just arrived to fill a demand surge. But the way they are built — rarely with basements, and structured to accommodate long manufacturing lines — makes it hard to avoid damage when a truly devastating storm hits.
“If we had enough advance notice and felt it was severe enough you might send people home,” she said.
Bryanna Travis, 19, and Jarred Holmes, 20, stood vigil near the rubble of the Mayfield candle factory Saturday where they had worked for months, usually for about $14.50 an hour. The engaged couple wasn’t working when the storm hit.
“I worked with these people. I talked to these people. I tried to build connections with these people. And I don’t know if one of my friends is gone,” Holmes said.
Holmes said there had been no drills during their time at the factory to prepare people in case of a storm.
“We haven’t had one since we’ve been there,” he said.
Executives at Mayfield Consumer Products didn’t respond to requests for comment Sunday. The company said in a statement on its website that it had started an emergency fund to help employees and their families. The company was founded in 1998 and split off from another firm several years ago.
“We’re heartbroken about this, and our immediate efforts are to assist those affected by this terrible disaster,” CEO Troy Propes said in the statement. “Our company is family-owned and our employees, some who have worked with us for many years, are cherished.”
Kentucky’s state safety and health agency website lists a series of 12 safety violations at the factory in 2019, though it doesn’t say what they were for.
Beshear told CNN on Sunday that his understanding was that it did have an emergency plan.
“We believe most of the workers got to what is supposed to be the safest place in the facility,” he sad. “But when you see the damage that this storm did not just there but across the area, I’m not sure there was a plan that would have worked.”
O’Brien reported from Providence Rhode Island. AP writer Bruce Schreiner contributed to this report.