Minutes before the disaster that claimed his life, a father of four sent an unsettling text to his girlfriend. It was his last ever message.
More unsettling details have emerged from America’s South and Midwest, where at least 74 people are dead and more than a hundred are still missing after devastating tornadoes ravaged significant swathes of the country.
Dangerous storms struck Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas on Friday night, local time. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in Kentucky, saying the event was “likely to be one of the largest tornado outbreaks” in US history.
Six of the victims were Amazon employees, killed when a tornado hit one of the company’s warehouses in Edwardsville, Illinois.
One of them was Larry Virden, a 46-year-old father-of-four.
Speaking to The New York Post, Mr Virden’s girlfriend of 13 years, Cherie Jones, said Amazon would not let him leave the warehouse before the tornado hit.
“I got text messages from him. He always tells me when he is filling up the Amazon truck, when he is getting ready to go back,” said Ms Jones.
On the night of his death, at 8:22pm, Mr Virden texted: “Well I will be home after the storm.”
“What (do) you mean?” she wrote back.
“Amazon won’t let us leave,” he replied.
The company reportedly wanted him to stay until the storm was over. He was killed when a tornado caused the building’s ceiling to cave in.
“We heard the tornado didn’t touch down until 8:39pm, so he had 20 minutes to get home,” Ms Jones told The Post.
“I messaged him and that was the last text message I got from him. I told him, where we live, it was only lightning at the time. After that, I got nothing from him.”
She subsequently texted asking: “So what are you doing? I hope everything is OK. I love you.” It is believed that was after the tornado hit.
She said she did “not really” blame Amazon for Mr Virden’s death, but wondered what would have happened if he’d been allowed to leave.
“He could have made it home,” she said.
Amazon has said the warehouse received a tornado warning, and the team on site did its best to get as many workers into the designated shelter area as possible.
“We are deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville,” a company spokeswoman said.
“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 CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s second-richest man, was less tactful in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
His first social media post amid the fallout was an unrelated message about his latest group of space tourists. Only after a backlash did he address the deaths of six Amazon workers.
“The news from Edwardsville is tragic,” said Mr Bezos.
“All of Edwardsville should know that the Amazon team is committed to supporting them and will be by their side through this crisis.
“We extend our fullest gratitude to all the incredible first responders who have worked so tirelessly at the site.”
A similar story unfolded at a scented candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, where at least eight people died after being told by supervisors not to leave the building.
According to NBC News, multiple employees at the factory – as many as 15 – heard warning sirens and wanted to evacuate. But “at least five workers” said supervisors warned them they would be fired if they abandoned their shifts early.
“People had questioned if they could leave or go home,” said one worker, 21-year-old McKayla Emery.
She said she overheard managers telling other employees: “If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired.”
“I heard that with my own ears,” said Ms Emery.
Another worker, 29-year-old Haley Conder, told NBC the factory’s managers initially told people to stay put out of concerns for their safety, but subsequently thought the danger had passed, so instructed their colleagues to go back to work.
“You can’t leave. You can’t leave. You have to stay here,” she says she was told.
“I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired,” said 20-year-old Elijah Johnson.
He asked a manager: “Even with the weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?”
“Yes,” the team leader allegedly responded.
A spokesman for the relevant company, Mayfield Consumer Products, called the recollection of these employees “absolutely untrue”.
“We’ve had a policy in place since Covid began: employees can leave any time they want and they can come back the next day,” the spokesman said.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear believes his state’s death toll will eventually exceed 100.
“This is one of the toughest nights in Kentucky’s history,” he said of the carnage on Friday.
“We are here for you. We love you. We are praying for you.”
He declared a state of emergency early on Saturday morning.
On Monday, a two-month-old girl was added to the state’s death toll. Oaklynn Koon succumbed to her injuries after her family’s home was obliterated.
President Biden has said the areas affected by the tornadoes look “like a war zone, but worse”.
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