Survivors’ stories: What it was like enduring Kentucky’s deadly tornadoes


(NEW YORK) — The tornadoes that barreled through the South and the Midwest Friday night have claimed at least 88 lives, mostly in Kentucky.

So many survivors have lost loved ones, homes, belongings, and sense of security.

Here are the stories of some Kentuckians who survived the storm and are picking up the pieces.

In hard-hit Mayfield, Kentucky, Steve Sasseen huddled in the basement with two neighbors, putting laundry baskets and blankets over their heads when the twister closed in.

Sasseen said the tornado “sounded like someone picked the house up and dropped it — extremely loud.”

It was over within a few minutes, and Sasseen said all he could see was “haze and dust.”

Once he went outside, the neighborhood “looked like a war zone,” Sasseen said.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and this is the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through,” he said. “I keep thinking it’s a nightmare and I’ll wake up.”

Dakota, who did not share his last name, was working at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory when the tornado hit.

“The top of the building got ripped off. And then we told everyone, ‘Get down,'” Dakota told ABC News. “I started pushing people under the water fountain. We were trapped. I was trapped under the water fountain for like two hours.”

He said he was then able to wedge a fire hydrant under the fountain and he and a colleague dug their way out.

“We started pulling the rest of our team out and then we were able to get first responders to the areas that were needed,” Dakota said. “I found people [with] broken legs, pulling them out. Some were non-responsive. It was rough.”

Meanwhile, Dakota’s fiancée, Brandi, was in agony waiting for news. Dakota had texted her to say “we’re hit” by the twister, but then she said, “his phone just dropped and I couldn’t get ahold of him.”

“A while later, he called me and he said that he’s trapped, that he’s under all the debris,” Dakota said. “He didn’t know if anyone was gonna be able to find him. I could hear people screaming.”

“He called me and he said, ‘I love you. Tell mom I love her. I’m sorry, I tried.’ And in that moment I collapsed because I thought he was gonna die,” she said. “I thought my worst nightmare was coming true, and I didn’t hear from him for hours, not knowing he was OK.”

“The moment that he called me when he got out of the rubble, you know, it was just instant relief,” she said. “He said that he wasn’t gonna go get checked out, he had to go back for his people. He had his people back there. He had to go save them.”

Several factory workers died from the tornado.

Mayfield resident Rick Foley said parts of his home collapsed on top of him.

“I heard it coming,” he told ABC News. “My ears popped and everything just hit all at once. And I ducked down and just everything piled on top of me — all the debris.”

Covered in insulation and dirt and overwhelmed with shock, Foley spent the night in his bed after the tornado tore the walls apart.

“I’m 70 years old and I got to start over,” he said, holding back tears.

In Gilbertsville, Kentucky, miles of homes are completely leveled.

At what used to be the two-story home of 88-year-old Wilbert Neil and his son, 63-year-old Jerry Neil, all of their belongings, cars and clothes are buried in debris.

“Everything is destroyed,” Jerry Neil said. “We almost didn’t make it.”

Jerry Neil said if he and his father didn’t move to the basement when they did, they wouldn’t have survived.

When they went to survey the damage on Sunday, they managed to find a safe with cash, their wallets, a few spare clothes and their guns.

Wilbert Neil was visibly emotional when volunteers found old photographs and the belongings of his 85-year-old wife. She has Alzheimer’s and has no idea the house is destroyed, according to the family. Wilbert Neil said he couldn’t bring himself to tell her.

The Neils bought the house in 2000, one year after they retired. It was the place where their grandchildren gathered during the holidays.

“This was the dream house for my wife,” he said tearfully. “We got it. She loved it. She’ll never see it again.”

ABC News’ Marcus Moore, Elwyn Lopez, Briana Stewart contributed to this report.


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