MAYFIELD, Ky. — As a catastrophic tornado approached this city Friday, employees of a candle factory — which would later be destroyed — heard the warning sirens and wanted to leave the building. But at least five workers said supervisors warned employees that they would be fired if they left their shifts early.
For hours, as word of the coming storm spread, as many as 15 workers beseeched managers to let them take shelter at their own homes, only to have their requests rebuffed, the workers said.
Fearing for their safety, some left during their shifts regardless of the repercussions.
At least eight people died in the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, which makes scented candles. The facility was leveled, and all that is left is rubble. Photos and videos of its widespread mangled remains have become symbols of the enormous destructive power of Friday’s tornado system.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that 74 people were confirmed dead in the state.
McKayla Emery, 21, said in an interview from her hospital bed that workers first asked to leave shortly after tornado sirens sounded outside the factory around 5:30 p.m.
Employees congregated in bathrooms and inside hallways, but the real tornado wouldn’t arrive for several more hours. After employees decided that the immediate danger had passed, several began asking to go home, the workers said.
“People had questioned if they could leave or go home,” said Emery, who preferred to stay at work and make extra money. Overtime pay was available, but it wasn’t clear whether those who stayed were offered additional pay.
Supervisors and team leaders told employees that leaving would probably jeopardize their jobs, the employees said.
“If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired,” Emery said she overheard managers tell four workers standing near her who wanted to leave. “I heard that with my own ears.”
About 15 people asked to go home during the night shift shortly after the first emergency alarm sounded outside the facility, said another employee, Haley Conder, 29.
There was a three- to four-hour window between the first and second emergency alarms when workers should have been allowed to go home, she said.
Initially, Conder said, team leaders told her they wouldn’t let workers leave because of safety precautions, so they kept everyone in the hallways and the bathrooms. Once they mistakenly thought the tornado was no longer a danger, they sent everyone back to work, employees said.
Anyone who wanted to leave should have been allowed to, Conder said.
Elijah Johnson, 20, was working in the back of the building when several employees wanting to head home walked in to speak with supervisors. He joined in on the request.
“I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired,” Johnson said. “Even with the weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?” he asked.
“Yes,” a manager responded, Johnson told NBC News.
Johnson said managers went so far as to take a roll call in hopes of finding out who had left work.
Company officials denied the allegations.
“It’s absolutely untrue,” said Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products. “We’ve had a policy in place since Covid began. Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.”
He also denied that managers told employees that leaving their shifts meant risking their jobs. Ferguson said managers and team leaders undergo a series of emergency drills that follow guidelines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Those protocols are in place and were followed,” he said.
A 24-hour hotline is available as of Monday for employees to call about hazard pay, grief counseling and other assistance, he said.
Autumn Kirks, a team lead at the factory who was working that night, denied Monday afternoon on MSNBC that people’s jobs were threatened if they didn’t go in.
But another employee, Latavia Halliburton, said she witnessed workers’ being threatened with termination if they left.
“Some people asked if they could leave,” but managers told them they would be fired if they did, she said.
The first tornado warning passed without any damage, but several hours later, another warning was issued. Once the second tornado siren sounded sometime after 9 p.m. Friday, Conder and a group of others approached three managers asking to go home.
“‘You can’t leave. You can’t leave. You have to stay here,’” Conder said the managers told her. “The situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.”
Mark Saxton, 37, a forklift operator, said that he would have preferred to leave but that he wasn’t given the option.
“That’s the thing. We should have been able to leave,” Saxton said. “The first warning came, and they just had us go in the hallway. After the warning, they had us go back to work. They never offered us to go home.”
As the storm moved forward after the second siren, the employees took shelter. The lights in the building started to flicker.
Moments later, Emery, who was standing near the candle wax and fragrance room, was struck in the head by a piece of concrete.
“I kid you not, I heard a loud noise and the next thing I know, I was stuck under a cement wall,” she said. “I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t push anything. I was stuck.”
Search for survivors continues after deadly tornadoes across 6 statesDec. 13, 202103:21
Emery, who was trapped for six hours, had several chemical burn marks on her legs, her buttocks and her forehead from the candle wax. She also sustained kidney damage, her urine is black, and she still can’t move her legs because of the swelling and from having been motionless for so long.
Employees who wanted to go home early said they were mistreated.
“It hurts, ’cause I feel like we were neglected,” Saxton said.