Judy Burton’s hands shivered as she gazed up at what had been her third-floor apartment. She could see her clothes still hanging in the closet, through the building’s shredded walls. Across the street, her church was boarded up. A few blocks away, the spire was ripped away from the town’s grand courthouse, its roof caved in. The restaurant where neighbors met for lunch, too, was lost in the rubble.
She clasped her hands together and tried to quiet their quivering. Burton and her dog had narrowly escaped as a tornado hit her town, part of an outbreak of twisters across the Midwest and South. Now, she stood among the grind of heavy machinery clearing the wreckage of landmarks, businesses and homes of Mayfield, population 10,000.
“It’s gone. It’s terrible, just terrible, I’m shaking,” she said. “It’s going to take me awhile to settle my nerves.”
Burton can’t imagine a single family here not mourning. Theirs is the sort of town where everyone is connected to everyone else. Mayfield was one of the worst-hit towns in the unusual mid-December spate of tornadoes, and Burton looked around at a disorienting jumble of boards and bricks and broken glass.
Hundreds of buildings have been reduced to nothing. Roofs are sheared off those that stand. Some streets are littered with snapped trees, clothes, chunks of insulation and blown-away Christmas decorations. The fire station is inoperable, most police cars destroyed.
At least eight people working at a Mayfield candle factory were killed, and eight more are missing. It’s still unclear how many others in Mayfield died. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear had feared more than 100 dead statewide, but on Sunday afternoon he scaled back that estimate to as low as 50, with many at the candle factory accounted for.
Burton worries for her neighbor and her little dog. They’re feared among the dead, as they were probably unable to escape as the walls collapsed around them.
Burton and others evacuated in the middle of the night. She harnessed her dog, grabbed a neighbor by the hand and herded them to the elevator toward the basement. About 15 people there cried, screamed and prayed for protection as the wind blew open locked doors.
Down the hall, Johnny Shreve had been watching the storm approach from his window. Lightning crashed, and in that split second of brightness, he realized that their town would not be the same come morning: He saw an office building across the street disintegrate. Then he dove onto his kitchen floor as chunks of concrete pelted his body.
“It felt like everything in the world came down on me,” he said.
He lay there for more than an hour, trying to dig himself out and shouting for his neighbors and his Shih Tzu, Buddy. Finally, Shreve broke through into the living room. There was Buddy, trying to scratch toward him from the other side.
He posted on Facebook that they were alive and added: “Y’all pray for Mayfield.”
“It blew my mind when the sun came up,” Shreve said, when he and others returned over the weekend to salvage what they could and traded stories of survival in the parking lot. “I don’t see how this town can recover. I hope we can, but we need a miracle.”
In the nearby town of Wingo, more than 100 people took shelter at a church — babies, people in their 80s and 90s, family pets. Everyone has a story, a reason they have nowhere else to go.
Meagan Ralph, a schoolteacher volunteering to coordinate the shelter, pulled up an aerial photo of Mayfield, her hometown, on her phone. She zoomed in, seeking a landmark to orient herself.
“I can’t recognize it, it’s not recognizable,” she said. “I can’t even identify what I’m looking at, it’s that bad.”
But she has found hope at the shelter. Donations have poured in. Volunteers from surrounding counties came in droves. People from Mayfield take care of each other, she said.
As the news spread of the horrors at the candle factory on the night of the storm, hundreds of ordinary people arrived at the factory to help, braving slippery rubble until authorities told them to go home, said Stephen Boyken, who’s a chaplain there. That spirit is part of the fabric of Mayfield, he said: “If you’re off in a ditch, there’s somebody going to stop by, probably three or four trucks try to get you out and help you.”
By the time the sun came up, they were lined up at churches and school gymnasiums to give piles of clothes and coats, food and water.
“We will recover, absolutely.” Ralph said. “We’re small but mighty.”
She looked around the shelter, and noted that the task before them is extraordinary, with hundreds of their neighbors now with nothing and nowhere to go.
Wanda Johnson, 90, ended up here after she was evacuated from the same apartment building where Burton escaped. Johnson’s windows burst, and she clung to her doorframe, pleading: “Dear God, help me, please help me get out of here.”
At the shelter with her son and granddaughter, she wonders what will become of them now.
“They tell me we don’t have a town,” Johnson said. “Everything’s gone. It’s just wiped away. It just flipped over our city.
“We don’t know where we’re going to go — we don’t know what’s left to go to.”