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At Mayfield, Ky. factory, incarcerated people among workers feared dead and injured


A Mayfield, Kentucky, candle factory is expected to be the site of the largest loss of life from the tornado Friday evening.

None of the dead or injured have been identified yet, but at least a few of those inside on the overnight shift were hired through the Graves County Jail, where they were incarcerated.

The phone lines were down at the jail when a reporter called Saturday. The jail acknowledged on its Facebook page that some of their inmates were at the candle factory, and said one staff member had died. They didn’t identify the staff member or report on the condition of the jail workers. Jail officials did not respond to a Facebook message seeking more information.

When the National Weather Service issued a tornado emergency warning in Mayfield just before 11:30 p.m CT, more than 100 people were working. Dozens died, and officials expect the death tolls to rise: As of Saturday around noon, Gov. Andy Beshear said a FEMA team was on the way to help with search and rescue efforts in Graves County.

The company, Mayfield Consumer Products, describes itself as a local, family-owned manufacturer of products including candles. They had not issued a statement by Saturday afternoon; the CEO couldn’t be reached for comment.

‘The roof lifted up and came back down’

18-year-old Lathan Harpole was at the factory when the tornado hit. Harpole told WFPL he was buried under rubble with several others when the roof collapsed. One person, who he believed to be a corrections officer, appeared to be deceased.

“He was stuck pretty bad, and I’m pretty sure he passed away,” Harpole told WFPL News by Facebook message.

Harpole told WFPL he was working on the line at the candle factory along with about 100 other people. Harpole, who had only been employed there a few weeks, said he makes minimum wage, plus an extra dollar an hour for working the night shift, which runs 5 p.m.-3:30 a.m.

He said around midnight, workers heard the tornado sirens and took shelter in the bathrooms.

About 10 to 20 minutes later, the tornado struck.

“I heard what sounded like rolling thunder, and I started running, and I looked back, the roof lifted up and came back down,” Harpole said. “I remember diving next to someone, and we were holding each other like we were brothers, and then that's when we started digging up.”

He emerged with a few others 10-15 minutes later, with only minor scrapes and bruises. One of his coworkers he was buried with had a badly broken leg.

“I remember screaming out, ‘Scream if you need help,’ and all you could hear was people screaming from every direction,” he said.

Harpole helped uncover two people, and turned to police to rescue a third woman, who he said was pinned very badly. He got a ride home from a “good samaritan,” and said he plans to spend the afternoon walking through town to see how else he can help.

In an interview with the Today Show, another worker, Kyanna Parsons-Perez described the devastation and chaos after the storm swept through. She said the workers were taking shelter when the roof collapsed; the inmate workers were among those working to pull people from the rubble.

Jail arrangement

The Paducah Sun reported in July on a work agreement between the Graves County Jail and the candle factory. Jail officials told the newspaper that the individuals would receive some income but declined to say how much, and that some of the money they made would be returned to the jail.

People in a Calloway County Jail work release program also worked at the factory, according to published media reports, but there was no indication from county officials that they were working Friday evening. The jail’s phone line was down Saturday.

The Graves County Jail was evacuated before the storm, according to a post on the jail’s Facebook page. A person commented on the post, saying they were worried about a family member at the jail.

The jail responded: “Unless he worked at the candle factory, you can rest assured that he is okay.”

Jared Bennett contributed to this report.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.
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