MAYFIELD, Ky. – As a catastrophic tornado approached this town on Friday, workers at a candle factory – which will later be destroyed – heard the warning sirens and wanted to leave the building. But at least five workers said supervisors had warned employees they would be sacked if they left their jobs early.
For hours as word of the upcoming storm spread, as many as 15 workers pleaded with managers to let them take refuge in their homes, but their demands were turned down, workers said.
Fearing for their safety, some left on their shifts without considering the repercussions.
At least eight people have died at the Mayfield Consumer Products plant, which makes scented candles. The facility has been razed to the ground and only rubble remains. Photos and videos of his large-scale mutilated remains have become symbols of the enormous destructive power of the Friday tornado system.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said Monday that 74 people had been 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 gathered in bathrooms and inside hallways, but the real tornado wouldn’t arrive for several hours. After the workers decided the immediate danger was over, several began asking to go home, the workers said.
“People had been wondering if they could leave or go home,” said Emery, who preferred to stay at work and earn the extra money. Overtime pay was available, but it was not clear whether those who stayed were offered extra pay.
Supervisors and team leaders told employees their departure would likely jeopardize their jobs, the employees said.
âIf you go, you’re more than likely to be made redundant,â Emery said. “I heard that with my own ears.”
About 15 people demanded to return 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 return home, she said.
Initially, Conder said, team leaders told him they wouldn’t let workers go due to security measures, so they kept everyone in the hallways and bathrooms. Once they mistakenly thought the tornado was no longer a danger, they fired everyone to work, employees said.
Anyone who wanted to leave should have been allowed to do so, Conder said.
Elijah Johnson, 20, was working in the back of the building when several employees wishing to return home entered to speak to supervisors. He joined the request.
âI asked to leave and they told me I would be fired,â Johnson said. “Even with a weather like this, are you still going to fire me?” ” He asked.
âYes,â an official replied, Johnson told NBC News.
Johnson said managers had even gone so far as to take a roll call in hopes of finding out who left the job.
Company officials have denied the allegations.
âThis is absolutely wrong,â said Bob Ferguson, spokesperson for Mayfield Consumer Products. âWe have had a policy in place since the start of Covid. Employees can leave at any time and can return the next day.
He also denied that managers told employees quitting their shifts meant risking their jobs. Ferguson said managers and team leaders undergo a series of emergency drills that follow guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
âThese protocols are in place and have been followed,â he said.
A 24-hour hotline has been available since Monday for employees to call about risk premium, bereavement counseling and other forms of assistance, he said.
Autumn Kirks, a foreman at the factory who was working that night, denied on MSNBC Monday afternoon that people’s jobs were at risk if they didn’t come in.
But another employee, Latavia Halliburton, said she saw workers threatened with dismissal if they left.
âSome people asked if they could leave,â but officials told them they would be sacked if they did, she said.
The first tornado warning passed without any damage, but several hours later another warning was issued. After the second tornado siren sounded shortly after 9 p.m. on Friday, Conder and a group of others approached three managers asking them to return home.
âYou can’t go. You can’t go. You have to stay here, âConder said, officials told him. âThe situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.
Forklift operator Mark Saxton, 37, said he would have preferred to leave but had not been given the chance.
âThat’s the thing. We should have been able to leave,â Saxton said. âThe first warning came up and they just led us into the hallway. After the warning they made us go back to work. never offered to come home.
As the storm progressed after the second siren, the employees took cover. The lights in the building began to flash.
Moments later, Emery, who was standing near the candle wax and scent room, was hit in the head by a piece of concrete.
âI’m not kidding, I heard a loud noise and the next thing I know I was stuck under a cement wall,â she said. âI couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t push anything. I was stuck.”
Emery, who was trapped for six hours, had several chemical burn marks on her legs, buttocks and forehead from the candle wax. She also suffered kidney damage, her urine is black, and she still cannot move her legs due to the swelling and being still for so long.
Employees who wanted to return home earlier said they were mistreated.
âIt hurts, because I feel like we’ve been overlooked,â Saxton said.