MAYFIELD, Ky. – Like a a catastrophic tornado approached this city On Friday, employees at 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 they would be fired if they left their guards early.
For hours, as words about coming storm spreadAs many as 15 workers asked managers to let them seek shelter in their own homes, only to have their requests denied, the workers said.
Fearing for their safety, some went under their guards regardless of the consequences.
At least eight people died at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, which manufactures scented candles. The plant was leveled and there are only rubble left. Photos and videos of its widespread, devastated remains have become symbols of Friday’s enormous destructive power of the tornado system.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said Monday that 74 people was confirmed dead in the state.
McKayla Emery, 21, said in an interview from her hospital bed that workers only asked to leave shortly after tornado sirens sounded outside the factory around 5:30 p.m.
Employees gathered in bathrooms and inside the hallways, but the real tornado would first arrive in several hours. After workers decided the immediate danger was over, several began asking to go home, workers said.
“People had asked if they could leave or go home,” said Emery, who preferred to stay at work and earn extra money. Overtime pay was available, but it was not clear whether those who stayed were offered additional pay.
Supervisors and team leaders told employees it was likely to jeopardize their jobs, employees said.
“If you go, you’re more than likely to be fired,” Emery said, as she overheard managers telling four workers standing near her who wanted to go. “I heard it 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 window of three to four hours between the first and second emergency alarms when workers should have been allowed to go home, she said.
At first, Conder said, team leaders told her they would not let the workers go because of safety precautions, so they kept everyone in the hallways and bathrooms. When 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 do so, Conder said.
Elijah Johnson, 20, was working in the back of the building when several employees who wanted to go home came in to talk to supervisors. He agreed to the request.
“I asked to go and they told me I would be fired,” Johnson said. “Even with such weather, will you still fire me?” he asked.
“Yes,” one manager replied, Johnson told NBC News.
Johnson said executives went so far as to take a name 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 started. Employees can leave anytime they want 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 leaders and team leaders are reviewing a series of emergency drills that follow the guidelines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“These protocols are in place and were followed,” he said.
A 24-hour hotline is available from Monday for employees to call about danger pay, grief counseling and other assistance, he said.
Autumn Kirks, a team leader at the factory that worked that night, denied Monday afternoon on MSNBC that people’s jobs were threatened if they did not go inside.
But another employee, Latavia Halliburton, said she witnessed workers being threatened with dismissal if they left.
“Some people asked if they could go,” but executives told them they would be fired if they did, she said.
The first tornado warning went off without damage, but several hours later another warning was issued. When the second tornado siren sounded sometime after 6 p.m. 21 Friday, Conder and a group of others approached three leaders and asked to go home.
“‘You can not go. You can not leave. You have to stay here,” Conder said the leaders told her. “The situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.”
Mark Saxton, 37, a forklift operator, said he would have preferred to go, but that he was not given the opportunity.
“That’s the case. We should have been able to leave,” Saxton said. “The first warning came and they made us go straight to the hallway. After the warning, they made us go back to work. They never offered us to go home.”
As the storm moved forward after the second siren, staff sought shelter. The lights in the building began to flicker.
Moments later, Emery, standing near the candle and fragrance room, was hit 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 could not move anything. I could not push anything. I was stuck.”
Emery, who was trapped for six hours, had several chemical burn marks on her legs, her buttocks and forehead from the candle. She also got kidney damage, her urine is black and she still cannot move her legs due to the swelling and because she has been immobile for so long.
Employees who wanted to go home early said they were abused.
“It hurts because I feel like we were neglected,” Saxton said.