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'I can't believe I'm even here,' candle factory survivor says

Mark Saxton opened an outside door, saw the swirling cloud and stepped back, and suddenly the walls imploded.

MAYFIELD, Ky. — His Friday night shift was supposed to go on as usual. Mark Saxton showed up for work 30 minutes early, as he always does, greeted friends and got down to business. As a forklift operator at Mayfield Consumer Products' candle factory, he loads and unloads trucks.

Saxton, who lives in Mayfield, was doing just that when, a few hours into the night, after a third tornado warning, he suddenly felt he might really be in danger.

Saxton, 37, walked to an outside door, opened it and saw for himself the ice-cream-swirling-shaped cloud heading directly for him. He turned and was headed to a tornado-safe hallway close by.

“I started backing up,” said Saxton, who started his job in March.

Mark and Courtney Saxton look at their home, which was devastated by a tornado in Mayfield, Ky. Mark Saxton survived the destruction at the candle factory. Deon Hampton / NBC News

He was out of time.

Within seconds, the churning winds struck, and chaos erupted.

“Tiles and concrete started falling,” he said. Walls imploded. “Everyone started running, so I just dropped to the ground. I got in a fetal position, and the concrete slab fell on top of me.”

He felt himself being picked up by the force, and then he was on the building's collapsed roof.

All around him were co-workers crying out for help, he said.

A couple of miles away, near downtown, Saxton’s wife and six children were in just as much danger. As they hid in the closet of their one-story house, the storm ripped away the roof and parts of the walls.

Search and rescue crews work at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory early Sunday in Mayfield, Ky. Ryan C. Hermens / Lexington Herald-Leader via AP

His wife, Courtney Saxton, 38, passed out because of a heart condition, he said.

Neighbors managed to ensure his family's safety, and nobody died.

The scene was much more grim back at the factory.

Saxton survived the direct hit with minor cuts and bruises. He was pulled out with only scrapes on his back and an arm.

The same can’t be said of many of his co-workers, including three close friends and his cousin Robert Daniel, a corrections officer, who, Saxton said, was overseeing inmates from the city's Restricted Custody Center who were working in the factory.

With the city still out of power Sunday, Saxton found himself at a shelter just outside town, where he and several other relatives who also lost their homes slept overnight.

Saxton reflected on his last moments with his cousin, a life taken literally in the blink of an eye. 

Before the tornado hit, they had joked about how enjoyable and easy their jobs were — compared with other, harder jobs they’d had in the past. He said he will never forget Daniel.

“He was just always happy and had a good spirit,” Saxton said, pondering why he survived when his cousin and so many other people didn’t.

“I really didn’t think I was going to make it. If you see the people that were beside me ... I can’t believe I’m even here,” he said.

Emergency workers search through the wreckage of the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory on Saturday.John Amis / AFP - Getty Images

Mayfield resident Colette Moorman, 30, prepared for the tornado as best as she could. She and her children also hid in closets.

Speaking from the shelter Sunday, Moorman said she knew the twister was nearby when she felt the change in air pressure and her ears began to pop.

“We lost everything,” she said.

Jasmine Blocker, 34, of Mayfield, didn’t have much damage to her home, but she still ended up staying at the shelter because she was without electricity.

“I think it’s going to take a lot to repair Mayfield. It’s not even damaged. It’s gone and destroyed. We have to rebuild, not repair, and it’s going to take from everybody,” she said.

CORRECTION (Dec. 13, 2021, 12:59 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a Kentucky tornado victim. He was Robert Daniel, not Daniels.