‘Massive amount of damage’: Kentucky EF-4 tornado response play-by-play

After a tornado tore through Mayfield, fire crews searched for survivors, evacuated the local jail, and mourned a friend


By Joseph P. Siedel

On the evening of Friday, Dec. 10, a major storm resulting in an EF-4 tornado went through the
city of Mayfield, Kentucky.

Just hours before, at approximately 6 p.m., the Cuba Community Volunteer Fire Department, located just south of Mayfield, had been placed on standby by Graves County Emergency Management Director Tracy Warner. She also called Cuba Fire Chief Mitchell Dick to discuss preparations for the severe storm that was projected to move through our jurisdiction.

First responders survey damage from the EF-4 tornado that slammed into the Graves County Jail and hit a candle factory where seven inmates were on a work release program.
First responders survey damage from the EF-4 tornado that slammed into the Graves County Jail and hit a candle factory where seven inmates were on a work release program. (Photo/Joseph P. Siedel)

As the storm entered western Kentucky around 9:20 p.m., it shifted toward the city of Mayfield, approximately 10 miles north of the Cuba Fire Department, and into the city limits.

A direct hit

I received a call from someone from my place of employment, the Graves County Jail, stating the jail had taken a direct hit from the tornado, as had the candle factory where seven of our inmates and fellow Deputy Jailer Robert Daniel had been located on a work release program that evening. Fortunately, having been placed on standby, Cuba fire crews were able to respond within just minutes.

I immediately asked Fire Chief Dick and Assistant Chief Chris Travis to assist with the evacuation of the 93 inmates housed at the Graves County Jail, which had become structurally compromised when the bell tower of the courthouse fell onto the jail during the storm.

Upon arrival to the courthouse, I contacted Chief Shannon Climer of the Viola Volunteer Fire Department, a town just north of Mayfield, and asked if he could assist as well. Climer had already responded to the candle factory and was actively involved in search and rescue efforts there. Climer was notified to keep a look out for our inmates and our deputy jailer.

There was an amazing interagency cooperation among all the volunteer fire departments, city department, and local law enforcement that night. The teamwork across all disciplines and departments helped to safely secure the court square. Chief Dick and Mayfield Police Officer Lt. Vaughn were able to clear the roads and obtain several school buses that allowed us to safely evacuate the Graves County Jail. Without this cooperation, things could have been so much worse.

Unlike the seven inmates at the candle factory who are nonviolent offenders on a work-release program, there was a high concern about evacuating 93 offenders who are awaiting sentencing for all types of crimes from the jail. Having the available resources, like Lt. Vaughn from Mayfield City Police and the volunteer fire departments, made the public safe from any possible escape. The extra staffing also helped care for the inmates’ safety. Further, multiple departments had the court square to block the general public from accessing the area around the jail as we escorted the inmates from the debris and to the school buses.  

Painful, dangerous searches

Once the evacuation of the jail had been completed around 1 a.m., several volunteer fire departments from within Graves County and the surrounding areas were out and ready to help with search and rescue.

The CFSB bank served as the incident command post/emergency operation center set up by Director Warner earlier in the day in preparation for the predicted “Particularly Dangerous Situation" warning released by the Paducah Weather Service.

Upon arrival to the bank, we met with several departments and agreed to take on searching 4th, 5th and 6th streets, as this was a highly populated residential area and in the direct path of the storm.

I contacted Chief Climer and asked if there had been any updates on the missing inmates and Deputy Daniel. They had not yet been found.

I connected with one of the volunteer firefighters who happened to be a store manager of the
local Dollar Store. He allowed me to enter the store so we could grab a few supplies – flashlights, spray paint and a phone charger. These supplies were critical in those still dark and stormy conditions in which we found ourselves searching and marking buildings. We had learned in our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training how to assess a structure and mark a building to identify that state of the search. Having had this training was a big advantage, as many volunteers had self-deployed, and we hoped this prevented unnecessary loss of time in repeating work already accomplished.

Cuba Firefighter Brandon Wedel had been unable to get ahold of a family member who lived in the area of 5th and 6th streets. We decided to start in this highly populated residential area and go door to door looking for people who needed help.

Before arriving at Wedel’s family member’s home, a deputy jailer approached me and stated that there were voices coming from a home that no longer had a roof and was missing walls.

Assistant Chief Travis and I entered the home. As I went upstairs, Travis went down to the basement. There he found seven people who had taken shelter in the basement, and they needed help getting to a safe location. Two of the individuals asked if we could check on their mother's home down the road. Travis stayed with the seven individuals as Wedel and I went to look for the mother.

The massive amount of damage made it impossible to locate house numbers or identifying markers, so searching was slow and extremely difficult in the darkness.

Capt. Siedel and Cuba Firefighter Brandon Wedel performed search-and-rescue operations street by street following the tornado. (Photo/Joseph P. Siedel)
First responders sifted through debris in search of survivors. (Photo/Joseph P. Siedel)
Footage from inside the Graves County Jail. (Photo/Joseph P. Siedel)
The Cuba Community Volunteer Fire Department. (Photo/Joseph P. Siedel)

As we walked down the road through the rubble, we saw a man sitting on his front porch in a rocking chair with major damage all around his home. When I asked if he needed assistance, he politely smiled, thanked us for our help, and showed us his shotgun. He stated rather nonchalantly, “I've got all the help I need, but thank you for checking on me.”

We asked him about the neighbors. Were they safe? What were their names? He told us that the person across the street had damage but wished to remain home and that most people from the street had already evacuated; only a few people wanted to stay behind.

We headed to the next street over where Wedel had stated his family member was living. Wedel and I arrived at her home and entered through the window because that was the only available way to get inside the partial structure. He found her sleeping on the couch. There had been major damage to the dwelling, including a tree on the roof. Wedel and I then took her and her animals safely out of the home and escorted her to the local city fire department where she was able to get a ride to the triage area established at Mayfield High School.

School buses were being used for transportation throughout the event. Not only had they been used to transport the inmates, but they were also used in place of ambulances to transport walking wounded to neighboring hospitals. Several injured would ride on a bus with a nurse, paramedic or EMT to reserve ambulances for critical patients.

The tornado had traveled some 200 miles, leaving EMS crews across many counties overwhelmed. We had to be creative with what we had.

All air transportation was grounded because the weather was still very windy.

Walking down the streets we heard the hissing sounds of gas leaks all over. This made searching some homes too dangerous to go in unprepared.

Wedel and I met with Chief Travis, and we began searching on the next street over. The street was dead silent. All you could hear was tin flapping in the wind and the horrible gas leaks.

Several people who had stayed behind decided to leave the area once they realized the extent of the storm.

I will never forget seeing a pink toy jeep flipped over on the front lawn with debris and children's toys all around. Travis and I had both looked at each other when we noticed the second-floor child’s room completely open to the night sky. These homes were the hardest, emotionally, to search.

A heartbreaking realization

After several attempts of calling out and, as safely as possible, searching the debris of homes on 4th, 5th and 6th streets, we moved back to the Incident Command Post.

I then received a phone call that I will never forget. I was informed that our Deputy Jailer Robert Daniel’s body was recovered at the candle factory, and he was no longer with us.

Chief Dick and my fellow firefighters agreed to start our search for the missing inmates, as Chief Climer stated that only three had been seen alive.

Upon arrival at the Candle Factory, Chief Dick and I attempted to identify the deceased to determine if any were the missing inmates. Pictures were provided to the officer-in-charge, Darren French, from the Mayfield City Fire Department in order for those on scene to identify them if found.

Coordinated operations

We were then grouped into sections, so each section had an excavator and a search crew. I notified Chief Dick and Assistant Chief Travis that the back left corner is where the employees went during tornado drills. Travis and I had been stationed in the center of the factory so it was decided that we would both go into the center of the facility and work our way along the route used by employees in case someone was unable to make it there in time.

Chief Dick stayed behind with the excavator and Wedel to make sure nobody trapped would be crushed during the removal of debris and to make sure the deceased were not further mangled. Regardless of whether sounds were heard, every so often all the equipment would be shut down to listen for survivors calling for help.

I cannot stress enough the importance of good communication and networking.

I would like to give a big thanks to the following Graves County departments: Clear Springs, Cuba, Fancy Farm, Farmington, Lowes, Melber, North Graves, Mayfield Fire/Rescue, Sedalia, Symsonia, Viola, Water Valley, Wingo, Mayfield City Fire Department, and all of the surrounding departments that came without asking when we needed them the most.

Never give up, never lose hope, and always have faith.

About the author

Joseph P. Siedel is a captain with the Cuba Community Volunteer Fire Department and the lieutenant of Internal Affairs for the Graves County Jail. He is a member of the Mayfield/Graves County Search and Rescue Team and a trained member of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Through all these volunteer and emergency response activities, Siedel has developed a love for communication and holds a general license for amateur radio.

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