MAYFIELD, Ky. — As a catastrophic tornado approached this city on Friday, employees of a candle factory — which would later be destroyed — heard the warning sirens and wanted to leave the building. But at least four workers told NBC News that supervisors warned employees they would be fired if they left their shifts early.
For hours, as word of the coming storm spread, up to 15 workers beseeched managers to allow them to take shelter at their own homes, only to have their requests rebuffed, the workers said.
Fearing their safety, some in fact left during their shifts regardless of the repercussions.
At least eight people died in the factory, which makes scented candles and is owned by Mayfield Consumer Products. The facility was completely leveled and all that is left is rubble. Photos and videos of its widespread mangled remains have become a symbol of the enormous destructive power of Friday’s tornado system.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that 74 people in the state were confirmed dead.
Speaking from her hospital bed, McKayla Emery, 21, said workers first asked to leave shortly after tornado sirens sounded outside the candle factory around 5:30 p.m.
Employees congregated in bathrooms and inside hallways, but the real tornado would not arrive for several more hours. After employees decided 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 to workers but it wasn’t clear if those who stayed were offered additional pay.
Supervisors and team leaders told employees that leaving would probably jeopardize their job, the employees said.
“If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired,” Emery overheard managers tell four workers standing near her who wanted to leave the factory. “I heard that with my own ears.”
During the night shift, about 15 people asked to go home starting 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 where workers should have been allowed to go home, she said.
Initially, Conder said she was told team leaders wouldn’t let workers leave due to safety precautions, so they kept everyone in the hallways and 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.
Company officials denied the employee 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 anytime they want to leave and they can come back the next day.”
He also denies 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 Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.
“Those protocols are in place and were followed” during the tornado, he said.
As of Monday, a 24-hour hotline is available 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 on MSNBC on Monday afternoon that people’s jobs were threatened if they did not come in.
But another employee, Latavia Halliburton, said she witnessed workers who were threatened with termination if they left.
“Some people asked if they could leave,” but managers told them they would get 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. on Friday, Conder and a group of others approached three managers to go home.
“‘You can’t leave, you can’t leave, you have to stay here,’” Conder said she was told by the managers. “The situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.”
Forklift operator Mark Saxton, 37, said he preferred to leave, but 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 flickering.
Moments later, Emery, who was standing near the candle wax and fragrance room, was struck in the head with 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.”
Emery was trapped for six hours and sustained several chemical burn marks on her legs, buttocks and forehead from the candle wax.
She also sustained kidney damage, her urine is black and she still can’t move her legs from the swelling and being motionless for so long.
Employees who wanted to go home early said they were mistreated by the company.
“It hurts cause I feel like we were neglected,” Saxton said.