At least six people were killed when a tornado smashed through a massive Amazon warehouse in Illinois, one in series of twisters blamed for scores of deaths in five states.
Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said late Saturday that another injured Amazon worker was airlifted to a hospital and searchers were carefully picking through the rubble for additional victims. At least 45 people survived the carnage wrought Friday when the tornado struck the building, about 30 miles northeast of St. Louis at about 8:30 p.m. local time.
Because the devastation came during a shift change, authorities struggled to determine how many people were actually in the building or otherwise unaccounted for.
Whiteford said the building’s walls collapsed and the roof caved in. A section of the building longer than a football field was destroyed. Police officers worked alongside Amazon employees, extricating trapped people from the rubble, he said.
“These walls are made out of 11-inch thick concrete, and they’re about 40 feet tall, so a lot of weight from that came down,” Whiteford said.
The warehouse, which opened in July 2020, employs almost 200 people and sprawls across more than 1 million square feet. Completing the search through the rubble could take several days, Whiteford said.
Madison County Coroner Stephen Nonn said Sunday the six victims included four people from Illinois: Austin McEwen, 26, of Edwardsville; Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, of Alton; Larry Virden, 46, of Collinsville and Kevin Dickey, 62, of Carlyle. Deandre S. Morrow, 28, and Etheria Hebb, 34, were from St. Louis.
Amazon said it notifies all workers and directs them to move to shelters when a site is made aware of a tornado warning. Company officials declined to answer specific questions about when employees were warned Friday.
Amanda Goss said she was in her first week as an Amazon delivery driver when the tornado hit.
“As I look up, the corner of the building was shaking, and it comes down in the garage area,” Goss told KTVI-TV. “All I do is sit there in my van hoping it don’t move.”
The National Weather Service said a preliminary investigation found the tornado was an EF3, which pack winds of between 136-165 mph.
“This is a tragic day in Illinois history,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “To the families whose loved ones have lost their lives in this disaster, please know that the people of Illinois stand with you. We will help you through your grief, and honor your loved ones.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tweeted Saturday night his “fullest gratitude” to first responders at the scene.
“The news from Edwardsville is tragic. We’re heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones,” Bezos wrote. “All of Edwardsville should know that the Amazon team is committed to supporting them and will be by their side through this crisis.”
Authorities warned the death toll from the storms across Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri was expected to rise. The most severe damage was in Kentucky, where at least 50 people died – many when a tornado slammed through the town of Mayfield, flattening a candle factory with more than 100 people inside.
Gov. Andy Beshear said he believes at least 80 people died in his state.
“It may be well over 100,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It is so hard to describe. There’s not a camera lens big enough to show the path of absolute destruction.”
Contributing: The Associated Press