Rescuers in the United States are desperately searching for survivors after a string of tornadoes killed at least 94 people and obliterated homes and businesses in six midwestern states.
But hope of finding survivors was dwindling, authorities said on Sunday evening, two days after the disaster struck.
Nowhere suffered as much as the small town of Mayfield, Kentucky, where Friday’s large twisters destroyed a candle factory and the fire and police stations.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear told reporters on Sunday evening that at least 80 people in his state were dead and the toll was eventually going to exceed 100, but he held out hope for “some miracles” even though it had been more than 24 hours since anyone was found alive in the rubble.
“The very first thing that we have to do is grieve together and we’re going to do that before we rebuild together,” Beshear told reporters, saying one tornado tore across 227 miles (365 km) of terrain, almost all of that in Kentucky.
A company spokesman said there may be fewer deaths in Mayfield’s candle factory than previously feared.
Among the 110 people who were at the factory, eight have been confirmed dead and eight others have not been located, leaving far fewer missing than had been reported earlier, said Bob Ferguson, a spokesperson for Mayfield Consumer Products.
“There were some early reports that as many as 70 could be dead in the factory. One is too many, but we thank God that the number is turning out to be far, far fewer,” Ferguson said.
It was unclear how many factory workers Beshear was counting in his estimate.
‘Destruction as far as the eye can see’
Across Mayfield, a town of 10,000 people in the state’s southwestern corner, homes were flattened or missing roofs, giant trees had been uprooted and street signs were mangled.
Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from central Mayfield, said “there is destruction as far as the eye can see”.
“The focus is going through from home to home, or what remains of them because the greatest fear is not only that there may be people buried in that factory, but in that there may be unknown victims in these thousands of homes that have been levelled,” she said. “But the likelihood of finding survivors is diminishing”.
Zhou-Castro added that Mayfield was a “very tight-knit” town and that “people are coming from the outskirts offering whatever sort of assistance they can provide”.
More than 300 members of the National Guard were also going door to door and removing debris. Teams were working to distribute water and generators.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency was opening shelters and sending teams and supplies, including 30,000 meals and 45,000 liters (12,000 gallons) of water.
The governor said the tornadoes were the most destructive in the state’s history and that even the sturdiest structures of steel and brick were flattened.
“It didn’t take a roof, which is what we’ve seen in the past. It exploded the whole house. People, animals … just gone,” Beshear said. “The massive, widespread damage makes rescue efforts challenging.”
‘Snap of a finger’
Mayfield resident Laurie Lopez, 53, said she received a tornado alert on her phone about 20 minutes before her entire house started shaking. She took cover in a hallway with her 19-year-old daughter and their two Huskies.
“Soon the (window) glass … just burst in. We could hear it flying. I have it like all over my bedroom,” she said. The tornado “sounded like a freight train going through a brick house.”
The front of their two-story home appeared collapsed and part of the roof had fallen onto the lawn. Somewhere under the mound of debris was Lopez’s car.
Steve Wright, 61, said his apartment complex was largely spared, so he grabbed a flashlight after the storm passed and started looking for people who might be trapped. He ended up helping a father pull his dead 3-year-old child from the rubble.
“It was bad. I helped dig out a dead baby, right up here,” he said gesturing to debris that used to be a two-story house. “I prayed for both of them, that was all I could do.”
Another Mayfield resident Jamel Alubahr, 25, said his three-year-old nephew died and his sister was in the hospital with a skull fracture after being stuck under the rubble of their home.
“It all happened in the snap of a finger,” said Alubahr, who is now staying with another sister in Mayfield.
The genesis of the tornado outbreak was a series of overnight thunderstorms, including a supercell storm that formed in northeast Arkansas. That storm moved from Arkansas and Missouri and into Tennessee and Kentucky.
William Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University, told Al Jazeera that the path of destruction left by the tornadoes could be the longest ever recorded.
“We’ve gone eight years in the US since we’ve had an EF5 tornado, which is a maximum strength tornado. They have not yet rated this long track tornado in Kentucky, but there seems to be some evidence that it may be as intense as an EF5, and in addition it is very rare to have a tornado stay on the ground this long,” he said from Ames, Iowa.
“If confirmed that this path is about 370 km-long, it could set a world record for the longest tornado track, beating a record that has stood for almost a 100 years.”
US President Joe Biden told reporters he would ask the Environmental Protection Agency to examine what role climate change may have played in fueling the storms.
As Americans grappled with the immensity of the disaster, condolences poured in, with Pope Francis saying he is praying “for the victims of the tornado that hit Kentucky”.
Biden’s Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in a break from tense bilateral relations, said his country “shares in the grief” of those who lost loved ones and expressed hope that victims quickly overcome the tornadoes’ consequences.