Chapter 1: Return to Mayfield
MAYFIELD, Ky. — Even in July, seven months later, the air in certain spots still smells of cinnamon and vanilla, rose and apple.
Sheila Weisenberger limps along the edge of the concrete slab where the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory once stood, stopping every so often to inspect scattered debris half-buried in the dirt like artifacts frozen in time: White Barn candle lids. A University of Kentucky Santa hat faded Carolina blue. A broken time stamp that reads, “ENTERED DEC 09 2021.”
This is only the second time she’s been back here. The first was about a week after it happened. She and others were allowed back to look for their cars among the wreckage. Her smashed Chevy truck was, like many others in the lot, unsalvageable.
She pauses to scan the expanse of empty space, the piece of metal roofing wrapped around a splintered tree and the severed light pole near the front driveway.
“I’m trying to figure out where everything was because, well, there’s nothing here to go by really.”
Eventually, she finds what she’s looking for: The approximate spot of the women’s bathroom where she and others ran for safety.
She closes her eyes, and the memories of that night are on her, just as they’ve been so many times before.
“I didn’t want to go to work that night,” she says through tears. “Would it have hit me as hard … to find out that everybody was trapped, and this person died and that person died? Then it would be probably survivor’s guilt worse than what it is now.”
Chapter 2: The night shift
Holidays were always the busiest at the factory, whose customers included Procter & Gamble, Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. And in Murray, about a half hour east of Mayfield, it was the stress of that extra workload — and not impending storms — that had Sheila, 53, debating whether to stay home.
She picked up two coworkers for their 6 p.m. shift, but didn’t follow them in, choosing instead to drive around town while she continued her internal debate.
Megan Crawford, 28, also thought about skipping work.
She knew forecasters predicted a strong chance of severe weather. She also knew her single-income family was behind on bills, with Christmas only two weeks away.
Living just two miles from the factory, she told herself she could always leave and quickly get to her husband and their 1-year-old son if the weather got too bad.
At her home in Bardwell, 26 miles west of Mayfield, Chelsea Logue heard the weather reports too. But growing up in the Tennessee mountains, she said, tornado warnings didn’t typically amount to much.
She assumed they wouldn’t get more than a rainstorm.
Her fiancée, Tiffany Scherer, though, who also worked the night shift at the candle factory, stayed home to take care of the couple’s sick baby.
“Go ahead without me,” she told Chelsea, 23. “I’ll be here when you get home.”
As Chelsea and Megan clocked in for the night, employees were trickling back to the plant floor. Tornado sirens had gone off earlier, triggering the company’s emergency weather protocols. Staff headed to the building’s designated storm shelter, a long hallway connecting the plant floor to the lab where they mixed the caustic chemicals needed to create fragrances. Supervisors read aloud employee names, checking to make sure everyone was accounted for.
By 6:40 p.m., Sheila had made up her mind. She parked her truck in the employee lot and took her place on the production line, checking candles for imperfections, unwrapping lids and restocking packing boxes.
Later, when Sheila and a coworker stepped outside for a cigarette break, ominous clouds rolled across the sky. Wind gusts lashed the trees.
Inside the factory, employees whose cellphones had a signal were checking for weather updates. They knew a tornado had been spotted west of Mayfield, heading east on track to hit somewhere in town.
Unable to get a signal, Megan borrowed a friend’s phone to text her husband.
Get somewhere safe. I love you.
Tornado sirens blared in the distance. Team leaders hurried staff back to the hallway shelter. Managers called out names over the sound of wind hitting the building, of workers making small talk or recording live videos on their phones.
The lights flickered.
As Sheila fixed her short, spiky hair in the bathroom mirror, a noise from above caught her attention.
“Was that the roof rumbling?” she asked the woman standing to her left.
“Yeah, baby, it is.”
The lights went out. The factory’s metal roof started to peel away and then collapse along with the rest of the building.
Near the fragrance lab, Chelsea’s eardrums felt like they were about to burst. She tried to grab hold of the person swaying next to her.
At the other end of the hallway, Megan latched onto her friend’s arm as they ran for the bathroom.
“It’s a whole f—ing tornado coming at us!” her friend yelled.
Hiding in the middle stall, Sheila felt a pressure lifting her. She gripped the bottom of the stall's partition, which snapped from its supports and spun Sheila into the bathroom wall.
Chapter 3: Rescued from the rubble
Everything was silent, at first. And then the screaming seemed to come from everywhere at once.
Chelsea couldn’t move. Her head was wedged between a five-gallon bucket of chemicals and the collapsed hallway wall. All around her, people were trapped under the rubble, which towered at least 12 feet high in some spots.
The woman on top of Chelsea managed to wriggle free and push through a crack in the drywall.
At last, Chelsea pried her head loose and clawed her way up through that same crack until she felt the cold air and rain. She scooted cautiously along the expanse of rubble, spotting a flashlight beam and a first responder who yelled for her to test each step to make sure she didn’t fall.
She was buried for maybe an hour before she was able to climb to the surface, she later guessed. It took another hour, at least, to crawl to solid ground.
Megan strained to lift the twisted metal beam pressing down along her spine. She could move her arms enough to reach her cellphone to call her parents and tell them she was alive but trapped.
She thought of her son, Jameson: Was he OK? Was the house hit?
To Megan’s right, her friend started to hyperventilate from the pain in her crushed foot. Another woman muttered about being tired and just wanting to sleep.
“You’ve got to stay awake!” Megan yelled.
Finally, she heard someone overhead yell for a crowbar and a saw to cut them out. By then, she later estimated, she’d been trapped for nearly three hours.
Sheila woke up with her right leg squeezed between a wall and the toilet. The occasional lightning flash illuminated a tiny hole in the mass of ruin above her, just big enough for rainwater to trickle onto her face.
“Someone please help me! I’m trapped!” she yelled. “Can anyone hear me? I’m under the wall!”
Her breathing quickened. She fumbled for her phone and dialed 911, but the call wouldn’t go through. She screamed again. Still no answer.
She next tried her dad, who at the time was visiting his son in Missouri. Shockingly, the call went through.
“Dad, a tornado hit us. I’m trapped underneath and no one can hear me. I love you. Please tell mom I love her.”
The call disconnected.
Sheila turned on her phone’s flashlight. Just then, she heard a voice.
I see a light down there!
Two voices urged Sheila to keep talking, to keep shining her flashlight so they could find her.
Sheila struggled to breathe. Each step rescuers and survivors took seemed to drive the rubble onto her and the other trapped employees. Someone nearby screamed for the people above to stop walking.
For a moment, Sheila wondered if she had imagined her would-be rescuers. She stretched her left hand as far as she could through the hole above her.
“Please touch my hand so I know you’re real.”
She felt the slightest touch on her fingertips.
A distant voice warned of a possible second tornado and told rescuers to take cover.
“Please don’t leave me,” Sheila begged. “Nobody may be able to find me again.”
“I’m not leaving her,” the man above her replied. (Days later, Sheila would reunite with that man, whom she calls her guardian angel. He and his wife took Sheila to dinner and then to Walmart, where they bought her a winter coat.)
The second tornado never materialized. The chorus of emergency sirens grew louder as Mayfield and the region learned of the factory’s destruction.
Sheila tried to give the exact position of her contorted body to another rescuer cutting away a piece of the wall above her. Once pulled to the surface, she clutched her rescuer and dragged her numb right leg over the smashed and splintered remains to a waiting wheelchair, which carried her to a makeshift triage area in what was once the front parking lot. There, she and the other survivors said very little other than being happy they made it out alive.
Sore and bruised but otherwise physically OK, Megan left the factory. With only one shoe and her phone flashlight, she slowly walked along darkened streets, around broken glass, downed power lines and snapped trees to a gas station where her landlord’s husband met her.
It was around 2 a.m. when she walked through her front door and collapsed in tears on her living room floor. Her husband, Beren, helped strip off her clothes, still soaked in candle fragrance. She knelt in her bathtub and, with the little water pressure they had, tried to wash away the dirt and fiberglass and drywall in her ears and hair.
When she finally closed her eyes to sleep, all she could hear were the screams.
Chelsea sat at the edge of the rubble and, with a borrowed phone, called her fiancée, Tiffany, who was pacing their apartment floor, crying and clutching their son as she frantically messaged friends for updates.
“Please don’t freak out,” Chelsea told her. “I’m OK. Calm down. I promise I’m OK.”
Tiffany dispatched friends to Mayfield. A few hours that felt like an eternity later, Chelsea was home. She was covered in wax and insulation and dust. She threw her clothes in the trash and stood, sobbing, in the shower.
The rest of that night, and the next several days, remain a blur.
After her rescue, Sheila was one of maybe 10 people loaded onto a school bus and taken to a nearby school-turned-shelter for the growing number of injured or suddenly homeless residents.
Nearby Mayfield hospital was full, she was told, but there was space at Murray-Calloway County Hospital. There, medical staff regularly checked Sheila and the other factory survivors for blood contamination from the chemical exposure.
Kentucky was one of eight states hit by tornadoes that night and into the next morning. The longest and most powerful twister, the EF4 that wiped out Mayfield Consumer Products, started in far northwest Tennessee and stayed on the ground for a staggering three hours, carving a 165-mile path of destruction across 11 Western Kentucky counties.
In the end, the National Weather Service called it the ninth-longest tornado in recorded U.S. history. It killed 57 people, injured more than 500 and caused about $3.5 billion in damage to the state.
In all, tornadoes killed at least 80 Kentuckians that night.
While nurses changed the IV in Sheila’s arm, news of the violent storms started to trickle in. At first, she heard no more than 40 of her coworkers survived.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “That’s all?”
Sheila was discharged later that same day. She left with a walker, her swollen right leg partially numb and covered in bruises. Every step shot a sharp pain up her back.
At her parents’ house, she read updates about more survivors being found. Of the estimated 110 people inside the factory that night, nine were killed.
Sheila’s friend Jill Monroe, who was huddled in the bathroom stall three down from Sheila when the building collapsed, was among those killed.
Sheila had known Jill for about five months. “She was hilarious,” Sheila remembered.
The night of the tornado was supposed to be Jill’s last at MCP. Fed up with the job, she told Sheila she wanted to walk off the line at least once during their shift.
“All right, let’s go!” Sheila joked. “You want to go? Let’s go!”
When it looked like Jill would take her up on the offer, Sheila convinced her friend to finish the night. It haunts her to this day.
“I know that whatever was going to happen happened. It’s not my fault. But I still feel like a part of it is my fault because I talked her out of not leaving. If I hadn’t talked her out of leaving...,” she said, unable to finish the sentence.
Chapter 4: Recovery begins
Four days after she was rescued, Megan joined some of the survivors at a memorial service and candlelight vigil.
By then, several factory employees — including Megan, Chelsea and Sheila — were questioning why Mayfield Consumer Products chose to stay open that night despite the severe weather warnings. Some MCP workers were quoted in local and national news stories as saying they were told they could be fired if they left.
Eight survivors later filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in federal court. The case remains open.
The company has denied those allegations. Last month, CEO Troy Propes told The Courier Journal in an email that company policy allowed employees to leave after signing out with their supervisors.
"In fact, several employees signed out after the first tornado warning," Propes said. "When a tornado warning starts we have a shelter in place policy and implement it as required by federal law."
Immediately after the tornado, the company set up a hotline to help connect employees to resources. It also launched a relief fund for victims, advertising that all donations “are continuously supporting those who were directly affected by the tornado on Dec. 10.”
Propes did not answer when asked how much money has been collected by the relief fund. Online records show the fund reported a little over $1 million in assets last year.
The same day as the vigil, the company notified employees by text message that it was depositing $1,000 into their bank accounts.
Each month since the tornado hit has seemingly brought a fresh set of obstacles to Megan, Sheila and Chelsea. They’ve coped with physical injuries and deeper mental and emotional wounds that festered in unpredictable ways.
Time — supposedly the healer of such things — has failed to mend each woman, often hindered by the very social safety nets designed to speed the recovery process.
Some people may want them to move on.
“A lot of us can’t,” Sheila said, standing at the factory site on that sweltering July day.
“We may act like we’re OK, but we’re not. And I don’t know how to get back to where I was.”
Coming in Part 2
Sheila, Chelsea and Megan cope with the trauma of that night while volunteers and donations pour into Western Kentucky. Meanwhile, frustration grows with Mayfield Consumer Products after survivors learn whether they still have jobs with the company.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Kentucky candle factory tornado was just the start for 3 survivors