Kentucky tornadoes: Desperate search for survivors as death toll rises

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Watch: The BBC's Nomia Iqbal shows us the ruins of this church destroyed in Mayfield, Kentucky

A desperate search for survivors is under way in parts of six US states devastated by powerful tornadoes that have left at least 94 people dead.

Dozens more people are missing and entire towns were destroyed by about 30 tornadoes on Friday.

President Biden has declared a disaster in Kentucky, the worst-affected state.

At least 80 people have died in the state, including dozens in a candle factory, and the death toll is expected to rise above 100.

Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman told the BBC the death toll was continuing to rise "with every hour".

"All of these numbers continue to unfold...," she said. "Our emergency response teams are still surveying the damage and knocking on doors and reaching out to folks trying to make contact to see who's alive."

Local congressman James Comer, working with rescuers in the ruined town of Mayfield, said the tornado there was the widest ever seen.

"It's the most devastating storm damage I've seen in my entire life. We've had tornadoes that have been the same length as this tornado but we've never had one with the width of this tornado," he said.

Image source, Getty Images
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Rescuers search through the wreckage of the Mayfield candle factory

Forty people have been rescued from the collapsed candle factory in Mayfield but 60 more remain missing and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who has visited the scene, said it was unlikely there were more survivors.

He said no-one had been found alive since Saturday.

"There's at least 15ft of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there. It'll be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it," he said.

One candle factory employee made a desperate plea for help on Facebook from under the wreckage as co-workers could be heard moaning in the background.

"We are trapped, please, y'all, get us some help," said Kyanna Parsons-Perez - who was later rescued - in the broadcast played on CNN.

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Watch aerials showing the aftermath of "the deadliest tornado system to ever run through Kentucky"

Ivy Williams, whose wife was working a night shift at the factory, was speaking to her on the phone when the call cut out, he told the Washington Post. He said he had not heard from her since.

"I need people to help me find my wife, and be honest with me, and let me know as soon as possible," he told the newspaper, in tears as he waited outside a counselling centre.

Mayfield resident Tony Meeker described the moment the tornado hit.

"Out of nowhere the sirens went off and then not long after that our ears popped. I mean it was like the pressure dropped. And then it felt like our house was about to just be gone, get carried off," he said.

"It looks like a bomb went off. I don't know how anybody could've lived. I feel bad for anybody that didn't make it or people who got stuck. I'm sure it was terrifying."

Ghost town

By Nomia Iqbal, BBC News, Mayfield, Kentucky

As the sun rose, driving into Mayfield felt like entering a disaster movie. There is simply very little of the town left.

Flattened homes are now buried in heaps of their own debris - toys, shoes and an unfinished Christmas card are lying amongst the twisted metal sheeting and shredded trees.

Deeneen Moss lives a little outside of downtown and is looking for her cousin. It's a ghost town.

"Everybody's cellphone is down and I got up so early because I was nervous and couldn't sleep. Wanted to see if he is here."

As she drives down the road, she says she's unsure if she'll even recognise the house.

"It's really heartbreaking. I've experienced tornadoes before but I've never seen anything like this before."

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Vehicles were flung around by the tornado
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The roof was blown off this church in Mayfield

Deeneen is a school bus driver. Nearby one of those buses is overturned on its side, with the engine hanging out.

Windows and roofs have been blown off buildings that are still standing, including one of the main churches.

The stained glass has blown in and shards of it are covering the pews. Many people took cover in here when the tornado blew through on Friday.

There is no water and electricity due to downed power lines and the army have been brought in to guard the entrance to the candle factory where a huge rescue operation is still taking place.

Image source, Reuters
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Officials described Mayfield as the "ground zero" of the tornado events

Mr Beshear said the tornado had wrecked places all along its 227-mile (365km) path, including the town of Dawson Springs.

"One block from my grandparents' house, there's no house standing and we don't know where all those people are," he said.

Tornadoes also collapsed an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, killing six people. Police said at least 45 people had got out safely but that there was little hope of finding more survivors.

Amazon announced it was donating $1m (£0.76m) to a local community foundation, and "reaching out to victims' families" to provide support.

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Watch US President Joe Biden pledge his support for tornado victims

Mr Biden has signed a Federal Emergency Disaster Declaration, releasing funds for Kentucky. He said the loss of life caused by the tornadoes was a "tragedy".

Four people were killed in Tennessee, local officials said. Two people were killed in Arkansas, one of them in a nursing home after it partly collapsed. One death was confirmed in Missouri.

Image source, Reuters
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A train was derailed by extreme winds in Hopkins County, Kentucky

The intensity of the latest storms has encouraged speculation about how much they have been affected by climate change, though President Biden said the exact impact was not yet clear.

"We all know everything is more intense when the climate is warming, everything," he said.

The longest a tornado has travelled along the ground in the US was a 219-mile storm in Missouri in March 1925 that claimed 695 lives.

However, such major events outside of the spring and summer months are extremely rare.