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Midwest tornado destroys Amazon warehouse, killing six after worker 'told not to leave'

More than eighty feared dead across multiple US states hit by super storms

Updated Six people were killed on Friday night when a severe storm struck an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, and dozens more lost their lives in nearby Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Police in Edwardsville have identified six individuals who died as a result of the EF-3 tornado.

"The Edwardsville Fire Department is still working to clear debris from the site and working with representatives of Amazon to transition the property back to their control," Edwardsville police chief Michael Fillback said in a statement, noting that everyone who worked on site is accounted for.

"Unfortunately, six people lost their lives because of this devastating event and one individual remains hospitalized with serious injuries."

The Edwardsville facility, known as DLI4, opened in July 2020. Occupying 1.1 million square feet, it employed about 190 people who provided last-mile delivery to customers.

One of those killed in the warehouse collapse, Larry Virden, 46, texted his girlfriend just before the storm hit to say his bosses told him to seek shelter within the facility amid a tornado warning.

"Amazon won’t let me leave until after the storm blows over," he wrote to his partner of 13 years, Cherie Jones.

Asked by the New York Post if she faulted Amazon for Virden's death, Jones said: “Not really. But it’s that what-if situation: what if they would have let him leave? He could have made it home.”

In an email to The Register, Scott Allen, regional director for public affairs and media relations for the US Department of Labor, confirmed its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is looking into the Amazon warehouse roof collapse.

“OSHA has opened an investigation into the building collapse at the Amazon Warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, due to a tornado,” said Allen.

“OSHA has had compliance officers at the complex since Saturday, December 11 to provide assistance. OSHA has six months to complete its investigation, issue citations and propose monetary penalties if violations of workplace safety and or health regulations are found. No further information will be available until OSHA has completed their investigation.”

No other fatalities or injuries were reported in the City of Edwardsville, police chief Fillback said, though there was significant damage to structures and property.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker (D) issued a disaster proclamation on Monday to hasten aid to affected areas in the state.

Also on Monday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D), held a press conference in which he described the storm as the worst in Kentucky's history. The state was hit by at least four tornadoes, he said, one of which stayed on the ground for over 200 miles, leaving a path of devastation in its wake.

At least 64 people were killed by the storm, Beshear said, and that number is likely to rise past 80 as rescue and recovery efforts continue. Thousands of homes, he said, have been destroyed and it may be weeks before there's a full account of the losses.

Officials in Tennessee have confirmed four storm-related deaths while Missouri Governor Mike Parson (R) reported at least two fatalities on Saturday. Another two people reportedly lost their lives to the storm in Arkansas.

“We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, Illinois," said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel in a statement emailed to The Register.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado. We also want to thank all the first responders for their ongoing efforts on scene. We’re continuing to provide support to our employees and partners in the area."

Amazon has pledged $1m to the Edwardsville Community Foundation as it works with state and local officials on relief and recovery.

The tragedy has renewed concern that a suspended rule forbidding Amazon warehouse workers from carrying phones in work areas might be revived. The rule, dropped in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, denied workers direct access to emergency information and communication while on the warehouse floor.

Asked whether the storm has prompted the company to reevaluate its warehouse phone rules, Amazon said, "Employees and drivers are allowed to have their cell phones." ®

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