- The factory was reduced almost to rubble.
- Some employees claimed they feared being fired if they didn’t return home in time for the severe weather.
- These allegations were denied by a company spokesperson.
Haley Conder was working at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle plant when it was torn apart by a tornado on Friday night. Eight of her coworkers were also killed.
Some people asked to leave Friday night as the forecast was becoming more dire. Conder is one of many survivors who claimed they were told they couldn’t leave or that they felt threatened with being fired if they did.
These claims were denied by a company spokesperson and the chief operating officer. He claimed that supervisors were heroic in their attempts to shelter employees during severe weather.
Survivors filed a lawsuit Wednesday that alleges the company showed “flagrant indifference” to workers’ rights by refusing to allow employees to go home early as the storm approached, The Associated Press reported.
Conder stated that she was never threatened with termination personally, but that she felt there could have been retribution.
“They never told me I would get fired, but in some cases, there are people who sign out three or four times a week and then they sign out again you can get terminated for signing out so many times … we could face that termination,” she told in a phone interview Monday.
Conder recalled exactly when the tornado struck:
“All I remember is sitting in the corner of the bathroom and you hear this big boom and the lights flickered real quick and, like everybody says it’s true – the train. The sound was audible and I saw the ceiling moving in waves as if it were the ocean. I covered my head with my hands and braced myself when I heard that sound. All I remember is people running towards and passing me in the toilet, and then it was all black. And when all that sound was gone … I looked up and you could see the sky.”
The factory was reduced in size to a pile of rubble, some 15 feet deep, with about 100 workers on duty.
Conder said, “People are screaming so loud in pain.” “The woman next me, who was my friend, was stuck under, I mean piles and piles, of sheetrock, boards, and metal. The same thing happened to the person on the other side of my body. … It pushed us at least 20-30ft away from where we were on the floor. But that’s all I can remember. “And just the screams.”
(MORE: Victims can be anywhere from 2 months to 98 years old)
Conder stated that two tornado alarms went off on that night, one at 6 and the second at 9. This is consistent with the timing of the National Weather Service’s radar tracking and issuing warnings and watches to anyone that crosses it.
Both times, she stated, employees gathered at a designated area for emergencies. Some people wanted home right after the first alarm. They were instructed to stay in place until the all clear was given. Conder stated that she understood that it was for safety reasons but that she didn’t feel that supervisors were taking the severe storm threat seriously and that people should be allowed to leave before it turned deadly.
“By the second alarm, which was at 9, they had three hours from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock to let us know how severe it was and if we wanted to go home we had plenty of time go home … they made us stay and work,” she said.
“The fact that they had three hours to tell us we could at least leave, get somewhere safer, that’s not OK.”
Elijah Johnson (20), a factory worker, told NBC News that he and other employees had asked their supervisors if they could return to work.
“I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired,” Johnson said.
The company’s CEO, Troy Propes, said in a statement Wednesday that “an independent expert team” was being retained to review the actions of staff at the plant that night, including managers and employees, according to the AP.
“We’re confident that our team leaders acted entirely appropriately and were, in fact, heroic in their efforts to shelter our employees,” Propes said. “We are hearing accounts from a few employees that our procedures were not followed. We’re going to do a thorough review of what happened.”
Bob Ferguson, a Mayfield Consumer Products spokesperson, said that the allegations are false.
“It’s absolutely untrue,” Ferguson said. “We’ve had a policy in place since COVID began. Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.”
Ferguson also said to NBC that managers and team leaders practiced emergency drills following guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Ferguson stated that these protocols were followed Friday evening.
Weather.com reached Ferguson Tuesday afternoon via phone, email, and his PR company’s website, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a response.
Kentucky launched an investigation into what happened in the factory. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Tuesday news conference speaker, stated that such investigations are routine.
“So it shouldn’t suggest that there was any wrongdoing,” he said. “But what it should give people confidence in, is that we’ll get to the bottom of what happened.”
The factory supplies candles for retailers including Bath & Body Works, according to The Associated Press. These items are usually in high demand around holidays.
Mayfield Consumer Products is Graves County’s third-largest employer.
Conder’s close friend was one of the victims, but everyone in the factory is close.
“When you work with people 12 to 10 hours a day five or six days a week they become family, not just, you know, friends … You’re with these people six days a week, more than you’re with your family,” Conder said.
“It’s crazy to imagine myself living through something like that … and surviving it.”
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