'Complete destruction': Firefighters reflect on SAR mission at Ky. candle factory

"Just because we've come home, it doesn't mean that it is over," said Lexington Captain Ryan Hogsten

Christopher Leach
Lexington Herald-Leader

MAYFIELD, Ky. — Firefighters with the Lexington Fire Department were some of the first responders to a Mayfield candle factory that was leveled by a powerful EF4 tornado. They saw the damage firsthand and sifted through the wreckage directly, hoping to find signs of life.

Now they're back home in Lexington after a grueling four-day mission in Mayfield. They have since rested, recovered and started unpacking the haunting scenes that are still present in Mayfield and other communities in Western Kentucky today.

Emergency response workers dug through the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky.,  on Saturday.
Emergency response workers dug through the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday. (Photo/Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)

"We're going through it and reflecting on what we've done, what was there, how they're still being affected," said Ryan Hogsten, captain with the Lexington Fire Department. "Just because we've come home, it doesn't mean that it is over."

Hogsten and 16 others with the fire department were dispatched to the candle factory on Saturday morning for a search & rescue mission at the request of Kentucky Emergency Management. Hogsten admitted some of the firefighters were nervous on the drive to Mayfield and had to focus on getting their head in the right place before arriving.

"A major collapse of this size, it's not something we do everyday," Hogsten said. "We're trained. We train quite often for it. It's one of those low frequency, high impact kind of events."

They arrived in Mayfield at around 3 p.m. Saturday, roughly 17 and a half hours after the violent tornado roared through the area. Upon arrival at the candle factory, they checked in with the command post and got straight to work, beginning what would be a continuous 81-hour shift.

The team split into two groups so one group could get rest while the other worked. Hogsten was in charge of the night shift, which ran from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"From what we could see, we could see some large heavy equipment, machinery, excavators working and they were sifting through the debris and we just jumped into that process and began assisting them," Hogsten said about what he saw when they arrived.

This was not Hogsten's first rodeo. He has been a part of several search and rescue missions before, but said the scene at the candle factory was one of the worst he's ever seen.

"When we saw the city, downtown Mayfield and some other neighborhoods going up to it, it was complete destruction," Hogsten said. "There's no other way to say it — it was just like a bunch of Lincoln Logs or Legos that were put together and somebody kicked them and swiped them over. It was just material everywhere."

Witnessing the damage and seeing how destroyed the town was is the negative part of tragedies like this, Hogsten said. The other side of that coin is seeing communities come together, which is what Hogsten saw in Mayfield.

"You will see how strong a community is or how weak a community is by the time that something like this happens," Hogsten said. "Mayfield, Dawson Springs, they've got a strong community. There are people out there helping all hours of the day."

The search and rescue mission at the candle factory was deemed complete at approximately 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Hogsten gave a lot of praise to the Mayfield Fire Department and other initial responders who were on scene moments after the tornado struck and were ultimately responsible for saving a lot of lives.

"They made real rescues by saving people for going in and not having the training," Hogsten said. 'They went in and did what they had to do to save people, and there's no doubt about it that they saved people."


(c)2021 the Lexington Herald-Leader

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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