Father, mortuary workers among the dead in Midwest twisters
Details about the fathers and mothers, children, friends and siblings who died during a tornado outbreak that ripped through the Midwest and South are still coming into focus nearly a week after the onslaught.
At least 89 people have been confirmed dead across multiple states after more than 40 tornadoes pummeled a wide area, and entire communities are grieving for the lost. Officials say 74 people died in Kentucky alone, and Gov. Andy Beshear said the death toll could grow still larger.
Here are some of the people who perished during the tornado outbreak.
Lannis Joe Ward, who worked at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, had been saving money with girlfriend Autumn Kirks for months to buy a house. They were both at work the night a tornado leveled the building and afterward Kirks recalled glancing away from Ward for a few seconds only to look back and realize he had disappeared.
The Graves County coroner has since identified the 36-year-old Ward, who Kirks described as “a big Teddy bear” in an interview with The Associated Press, as being among the dozens of people who died in the tornado outbreak.
Ward, who was a line leader at the plant, had five sons and two daughters, according to an obituary published by a funeral home. Also known as Joe Marshall Ward, he is survived by his mother and brother, but his father died previously.
Kirks said she has tried to explain to both her children and Ward’s that he is no longer alive, but the youngest kids don’t really understand what has happened.
“My 3-year-old just keeps asking to talk to Joe, and I don’t know what to tell her,” Kirks told MSNBC.
A funeral is planned for Ward on Friday in Mayfield just a couple miles from where he died.
At the Ridgewood Terrace Health and Rehabilitation nursing home in Madisonville, Kentucky, Claude Mitchell did more than just laundry. Whenever he stopped by residents’ rooms with clean clothes and fresh linens, he would say or do something to brighten their day.
“Claude took a liking to my mom, and he was the greatest joy in her day when he would come in and talk to her for a few minutes,” said Jeannie Buckner, whose 97-year-old mother lives at Ridgewood Terrace. “I can’t even tell you how she lit up when he would come in.”
Residents and staff gathered outside the 110-bed nursing home Monday to release balloons into the air in memory of Mitchell. They learned over the weekend that the 65-year-old laundry worker was killed in the deadly storms that destroyed homes and buildings in nearby Dawson Springs, where he lived.
Mitchell had worked for about six years at the nursing home, said Lauren Lloyd, the facility’s administrator. He would often stop by the nurses’ station and other gathering places for staff members, she said, asking co-workers how their day was going.
“It’s just a deep loss for us to lose someone that had such a bright personality,” Lloyd said. “The staff are taking it hard.”
Buckner said Mitchell would often dote on her mother: letting her handle his gold necklaces and bracelets, bringing her candy bars and sometimes even spending his lunch breaks chatting in her room.
“I just can’t say enough good about him,” Buckner said. “I never saw him in a bad mood. And when he was there, everybody seemed to be in a better mood.”
In hard-hit Dawson Springs, Kentucky, the only funeral home in town was preparing for at least four funerals for storm victims – including two sisters who had worked at the mortuary – while also catching up on previously planned memorial services that were delayed by the massive storm, said funeral home owner and president Jenny Beshear Sewell.
The sisters who had worked at the Beshear Funeral Home – 80-year-old Carole Grisham and 72-year-old Marsha Hall – decided to stay put in their home, which lacked a basement, as the tornado barreled down on the town, Sewell said in a phone interview Wednesday.
As the tornado approached, Sewell texted Hall with an update on the storm’s path and to urge the sisters to take refuge in the funeral home’s basement or a church basement. Hall replied “OK,” but that was the last Sewell heard from her. The sisters’ home was demolished.
Both Grisham and Hall had worked for years at the funeral home, as the sisters’ mother did before them. Hall was still a key staff member and had put in a hard day of work Friday, just hours before she died in the storm. She handled many of the organizational tasks at the mortuary while also meeting with families.
“Everybody just knew her, and between the two of us, really, we knew everybody,” Sewell said. “When somebody would pass away, and maybe the name was familiar but they didn’t come up on my radar screen, I’d say, ‘Marsha, tell me the pedigree on this one.’ And she didn’t have to tell me a person or two and I knew who it was. And I was the same way.”
Arrangements are still pending, but a double funeral is expected for the sisters, Sewell said.
Roof damage to the funeral home’s main chapel has been temporarily patched, and most utilities have been restored, though the home still lacks natural gas for heat, Sewell said.
The funeral home has ties to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear. Steve Beshear’s great-uncle started the home as a combination mortuary and furniture store in 1909, the former governor said. Jenny Beshear Sewell is a first cousin of the former governor.
Cory Mitchell Scott worked in construction and, according to his obituary, spent his spare time “playing basketball, shooting guns, souping up trucks and listening to loud music.”
The coroner for Warren County, Kentucky, confirmed 27-year-old Scott of Bowling Green was killed at home as deadly tornadoes struck the Midwest and South.
Scott inherited a love of woodworking from his father and had a job with a local contractor remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, building custom furniture and other construction projects, according to his obituary in the Bowling Green Daily News.
“He was the life of the party and loved getting his friends together more than anything,” the obit said. “A friend to Cory was family, and there was no such thing as a stranger to him.”
Jeff and Jennifer Eckert divided their time between Kentucky and the Gulf coast of Florida, where he started a book publishing company near Sarasota in 1988.
The couple from Dawson Springs, Kentucky, were identified by a county coroner as being among those who perished in the deadly tornado outbreak that devastated areas of the Midwest and South.
Jeff Eckert, 70, was the founder of J.K. Eckert & Company, a company that published more than 400 books for some of the larger publishing houses, according to his obituary in The Messenger newspaper of Madisonville, Kentucky. He played music in several bands over the years and was a small aircraft pilot.
Jennifer Eckert, 69, had worked in an optometrist’s office for 15 years, her obituary said. She loved to travel and host cookouts with family and friends.
Days after the tornadoes hit Tennessee, Sandy Gunn still clings to her phone, anxious for any news on a brother-in-law who is missing following a weekend duck hunting trip in the rural western region of the state.
Gunn’s brother, Steve, 50, and Steve Gunn’s son, Grayson, 12, had traveled from Florida with a small group to stay at the Cypress Point Resort – a popular destination for hunters and anglers due to its close location to the lake. One of the several tornadoes to hit Tennessee tore through the building in the middle of the night, sucking the father and son into the storm as they huddled in the second story. Their bodies were later found just a few feet away among the debris and uprooted trees.
“(Steve) could build a house from a matchbook,” Sandy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You couldn’t go to Walmart with him without a hundred people stopping him. His son was the kid you grew up dreaming to have.”
Adding to Gunn’s heartbreak is her missing brother-in-law, Jamie Hall, who was also part of the hunting group.
First responders, family members and residents have all jumped in to help find him, but to date, no progress has been made.
“Our world has been shattered,” Gunn said. “I’m terrified each time I hear the phone ring. My brother-in-law was the kindest and most gentle man you would have ever known.”
A funeral for Steve and Grayson Gunn is scheduled for Saturday in Tallahassee, Florida.
By the time she won election to a vacant school board seat last year, Jenny Bruce had played a role at virtually every level in the small school district in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, where she had graduated from high school decades earlier.
“Jenny started out driving a bus and she was a teacher’s aide, and she gradually worked her way up to finance director,” Dawson Springs School Superintendent Leonard Whalen recalled. “She was some kind of lady.”
During the deadly tornado outbreak late Friday and early Saturday, 65-year-old Bruce was sheltering inside when a tornado obliterated her home, Whalen said. He said neighbors found her amid the wreckage. A county coroner later confirmed her death.
Bruce had worked for the school system for roughly four decades before retiring about two years ago. Whalen helped persuade her to campaign for an empty seat on the five-member school board in 2020, and she ended up running unopposed.
In her years working in the school district’s administrative office, Whalen said, Bruce was universally liked, never saying an unkind word about anyone and often bringing cookies and other treats for co-workers to share.
“She was a Dawson Springs graduate and she loved our schools,” Whalen said. “She loved kids.”
Kevin Dickey loved spending time with his family and “stole the show and the hearts of his grandchildren anytime he was around,” his family said in a statement. He also had a tight bond with his co-workers at Amazon, they said.
Dickey, 62, was among six people killed when an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, was struck. Authorities say both sides of the warehouse used to prepare orders for delivery collapsed inward and the roof caved. Rescuers had to pull survivors from the rubble.
Dickey’s daughter, Kristen Anastasi, told the Marion Republican that a co-worker said Dickey was trying to get people to safety and making sure his drivers were OK. She called his work ethic “unmatched” and said that’s what the family would expect of him.
“Dad talked often about his co-workers and their daily stories. He had a great bond with many,” the family said.
Douglas Koon, his wife, Jackie, and their three children huddled in his mother-in-law’s bathroom in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, as the storms approached. The tornado hit the house directly, flinging the family around and tossing in the air a bathtub that was shielding two of his sons. The couple put their infant daughter, Oaklynn, in a car seat to protect her, and she appeared to be OK on Saturday.
But by Sunday, the baby was having seizures, and doctors noticed a brain bleed after she was taken to the hospital. They believed she had a stroke, Koon said in a Facebook post.
Early Monday morning, the family posted that the infant had died.
In a text message to The Associated Press on Monday, Koon said he was struggling “to process everything that I’m going through.”
A family member has set up a GoFundMe account for Koon’s family and his mother-in-law, Sheila Rose, who lost her home.
Lisa Taylor had worked 14 years as a florist at the same family-owned shop in Memphis, Tennessee, when she left in October to start a new career at the airport with the Transportation Security Administration. Co-workers at Rachel’s Flowers congratulated her with balloons on a sign that read, “Good Luck, Lisa.”
Taylor, 54, stayed in touch with her friends at the flower shop, making plans to return part time over the holidays to make some extra money. Then the phone rang Saturday, just as the power came back on at the shop after violent storms passed through overnight. Taylor’s longtime boyfriend was calling with tragic news. A large tree had fallen through her roof overnight, killing Taylor as she slept in bed.
“She had just gotten started on her new adventure and she’s just been taken,” said Angie Morton, who worked as a florist alongside Taylor for several years.
A single mother of two children now in their 20s, Taylor took her new government job for higher wages and the extra stability that came with health insurance and other benefits, friends said.
But she had a creative spark that made her a natural when it came to working with flowers, Morton said, whether she was helping grieving families design funeral arrangements or using bits and pieces of broken, castoff jewelry to add some custom sparkle to high school girls’ prom corsages.
“She really liked to bling everything up,” Morton said. “She would take stuff other people would throw in the trash and make beautiful things out of it. If she found an earring in a store that didn’t have a matching pair, she would think, ‘I know there’s somebody who that would be perfect for her corsage.’”
Charles Newell, deputy emergency management administrator for Shelby County, Tennessee, said she was the only known storm death in the county that includes Memphis.
Rachel Greer, the flower shop’s owner, was helping plan floral arrangements for Taylor’s funeral. She said Taylor’s daughter had requested “a sea of purple flowers” such as lavender roses and chrysanthemums to match her mother’s favorite color.
Meanwhile customers were dropping by the shop to offer condolences and leaving notes. One of them read: “Lisa was a light in a dark world.”
Annistyn Rackley was an outgoing and energetic 9-year-old who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, according to her great-aunt Sandra Hooker.
The two had become close over the past four years: Hooker offered the girl support during doctor’s visits and blood draws required by a rare liver condition that still didn’t keep the southeastern Missouri girl from participating in activities.
Annistyn, her parents and her two younger sisters took shelter Friday night in a windowless bathroom in their new home west of Caruthersville, Missouri. To prove they’d gotten to the family’s “safe space,” the girls’ mom texted Hooker a photo of the three in and next to the bathtub – all of them smiling, 9-year-old Annistyn holding her favorite doll.
Fifteen minutes later, Sandra Hooker said, a tornado splintered the home, carrying the family members dozens of yards through the air into a field where first responders found them in mud. Annistyn died, and the others were injured.
Hooker called Annistyn a “special angel” and said the girl delighted in donning outfits and makeup for cheer competitions and learning new dances from TikTok. She did cartwheels and splits in front of Hooker.
“I would just gasp because she could do the splits all the time, and she would just laugh,” Hooker said. “She loved dancing.”
Hooker teaches gifted students at the same elementary school where Meghan Rackley teaches kindergarten in Caruthersville, which is nestled next to the Mississippi River in what’s known as Missouri’s Bootheel region.
Hooker said Annistyn’s parents learned when she was 2 months old that she had a rare liver disorder in which bile ducts don’t develop properly, sometimes making it hard to fight off illness.
Golden Wes Hembrey, 94, died when a tornado destroyed the nursing home where he lived in Monette, Arkansas.
His nephew Mike Hembrey said the Korean War veteran and retired farmer had been in the nursing home since 2016 because of Alzheimer’s disease. But he remembered his uncle as engaged with his extended family throughout their younger years.
“He was outgoing,” his nephew said. “He’d be out in the yard playing with us. But don’t make him mad. When he was mad, he was mad.”
“He liked cutting up, telling jokes,” said niece Kristie Carmichael.
The Hembreys said Jimmie Hembrey had visited his brother the day before the tornado and found him to be in good health.
Graves County Deputy Jailer Robert Daniel was supervising inmate workers at a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, when the tornado struck. His boss said Monday that Daniel had been focused on the prisoners in his care when he was killed.
Daniel, 47, had worked at the county jail for a few years previously and was rehired a few months ago, said Graves County Jailer George Workman. The seven inmates whom Daniel was overseeing at the factory Friday night were part of a brand-new work program and had just begun their jobs three days earlier.
After the storm hit, the inmates told Workman’s deputies that it was Daniel who literally had pushed them all to safety, guiding them through a doorway and against a wall in an interior part of the plant. Workman said the last inmate through the door told deputies that Daniel was behind him one moment, and suddenly he was gone.
“He was physically still in the act of trying to get them to safety. And that’s when it hit,” Workman said. “It takes a tremendous person to be able to lay their own life down for somebody else. But he did and he was doing it for the right reasons.”
All seven of the inmates in Daniel’s care survived, Workman said, with two of them suffering broken legs.
A cousin, Mark Saxton Sr., said Daniel was a native of the Mayfield area, which was devastated by the storm.
“He loved his community,” Saxton said. “He was a great family man. Everybody who met him just loved him. He’s the type of person you want to be associated with.”
Brian Crick, a judge for two western Kentucky counties, was known for his sound judgment when it came to solving problems, a fellow judge said.
Crick, 43, was a district judge for Muhlenberg and McLean counties who handled criminal misdemeanor cases, traffic court and juvenile cases, said Circuit Judge Brian W. Wiggins. Wiggins said he had known his fellow judge since 2005, when Crick was a public defender. He later was in private practice before taking the bench in 2011.
Many of the defendants who came before him weren’t represented by attorneys, and Crick “was very good about seeing to it that their rights were protected,” Wiggins said. “He had a very common- sense approach. He was very level-headed about how to handle cases and how to talk to people.”
Wiggins was killed when the storm hit his family’s home in Muhlenberg County. He is survived by a wife and three children, all of whom made it through the storm without major injuries, Wiggins said. “He was just a consummate family man … very engaged with his children and his wife. They were No. 1 to him.”
“We are especially heartbroken to get the news,” Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton said in a statement. “This is a shocking loss to his family, his community and the court system and his family is in our prayers.”
Two of June Pennington’s children said the Manila, Arkansas, resident was devoted to her four children and nine grandchildren and had a particular soft spot for animals.
Pennington, 52, was working as an assistant manager at a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Arkansas, when it was hit.
“She didn’t love anything as much in life as her kids and grandkids,” said Christie Pennington. “She was truly selfless and loved wholeheartedly.”
David Benefield, the oldest of June Pennington’s four children, said he was born when his mother was only 14.
“She was a kid raising a kid. We were just like best friends,” he said. “It’s crazy how close you become.”
Her children remember her as someone who “would do anything that we asked her to do,” Benefield said. Even after her children were grown, they said June Pennington wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.
Christie Pennington said her mother adopted dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, turtles and even a ferret.
“If there was ever an animal in need of a home, we took it in,” she said.
Ollie Borgmann, 84, was a sweet and “typical grandmother” who had lived in her home in Defiance, Missouri, for decades.
A tornado blew through the home she shared with her 84-year-old husband, Vernon, on Friday night, blowing the house off its foundation, as well as that of a neighbor’s house in the town located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of St. Louis.
Her son Mark Borgmann told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his brother, Keith, was on the phone with their father during the powerful storm when the line went dead. The next thing Vernon Borgmann remembers is waking up in a nearby field surrounded by debris. He suffered scratches and bruises but will be OK, said Mark Borgmann.
When Ollie Borgmann was found by rescuers, she was awake. She died later at a hospital.
Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, had been working at Amazon for more than a year before the storm killed him at a company facility in southwestern Illinois.
Five other workers also died at the facility located outside St. Louis.
Cope, who lived in nearby Alton, Illinois, had joined the Navy after graduating from high school and was an avid outdoorsman who also liked to ride motorcycles and play video games. He had a special place in his heart for his dog, Draco, said his younger sister, Rachel Cope.
“He would go out of his way for anyone,” Cope said in a written message.
Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Kimberlee Kruesi and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee; Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Terry Wallace in Dallas; Sophie Tareen in Chicago; Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.