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Jail worker killed in candle factory tried to keep inmates safe ‘at his own peril’

Betty Washington shows a picture of her cousin Robert Daniel, pictured left on phone in stripe shirt, in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 13. Daniel was a Graves County Correctional Officer working with inmates on a work-release program at the candle factory Friday night when a tornado hit the factory. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

MAYFIELD, Ky. — The day before Robert Daniel went to work at the candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., he had called his younger brother with exciting news.

Daniel, a 47-year-old deputy jailer at the Graves County Jail, had just started supervising seven detainees in a work-release program at the Mayfield Consumer Products Candle Factory that week. On Friday, he was among eight people killed when a powerful tornado swept through the town and leveled the factory with more than 100 people inside.

The tornado put a tragic end to what his family said was a promising new role for Daniel.

“He was super excited about it,” said younger brother Alonzo Daniel. “He was happy to be able to get the inmates out and work their shift.”

A jail employee supervising inmates working at Kentucky candle factory is among those killed by tornado

The program, billed as a way to help detainees earn money and get a fresh start after jail, resonated with Daniel. The father of seven was described by his family as a mix of no-nonsense and big-hearted — the perfect combination for his new role.

“He was a very loving dad,” said son Trey Daniel, 26, who grew emotional talking about his father.

Daughter Brittany Daniel, 28, said her father was also a doting grandpa — or “Papi” as he was known to his seven grandkids.

Two of Daniel’s sons on Monday gathered with their uncle in the parking lot of Brown’s Funeral Home in Mayfield, huddled around cellphones where their siblings and aunt were on video calls. Together, they remembered Daniel as the always smiling, happy father and brother who adored his grandchildren, his sister’s potato salad and the St. Louis Rams football team.

When it came to his grandchildren, rules were “nonexistent,” said daughter Jenna Daniel, 24. “He spoiled them,” she said. “Don’t let them ask for money or he’ll pull out all the $1s he’s got.”

He cherished time with his own children, too: with eldest son, Zachary, who lives in Mayfield, the two had a regular breakfast routine at LongHorn, Daniel’s favorite restaurant. Tyce Daniel, the youngest son, could count on seeing his father in the stands of every Southern Illinois University football game where he plays tight end.

“He was there unless he had to work or had a grandkid’s birthday,” Tyce Daniel, 22, said, smiling. “I would lose to the grandkids.”

Daniel had an “old school” attitude about behavior, his children said, but a remarkably soft touch — unless he was pinching them in the shoulder.

“He would always do this pressure point thing — he thought it was the funniest thing,” said Jenna Daniel, before ordering her brothers to demonstrate on one another.

The brothers complied, shaking each other where the shoulder met the neck and drawing laughs from the family that had been hard to come by since news of their father’s death.

“We’re just existing,” Jenna Daniel said.

Family members began calling one another after the storm passed late Friday, but calls to Daniel’s phone went straight to voice mail, Alonzo Daniel said. He and 30-year-old Zachary Daniel, went to the factory site to search.

“When we saw it, it was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Alonzo Daniel said. “It was a war zone. From what it was to what it is now, it’s completely unrecognizable.”

The sight of the piled-up cars, tractor-trailers and bunches of metal were a blow to Zachary Daniel; instinctively he knew his father couldn’t have survived.

Graves County Jailer George Workman said Daniel’s last act was one of heroism.

“The last thing he did was making sure [the inmates] were taken care of, even at his own peril,” Workman told The Washington Post, his voice faltering.

“It was obvious during the interview process Robert was someone concerned about helping others and doing the right thing for his community,” Workman said. The work-release program that had been stalled by the pandemic — much to the disappointment of an eager Daniel — finally started with its first day on Tuesday, Workman said.

Friends Jason Blair and A.J. Ferguson were the last people to see Daniel alive: The pair raced to the scene to help look for survivors after seeing news of the collapse and came upon Daniel, who was by then clinging to life.

Blair told The Post that Daniel and an inmate were both wedged under the same big piece of wall, but that Daniel’s solid frame may have shielded the inmate from being crushed: “I believe that’s the only thing that really saved that other guy.”

For Daniel’s final acts of service, Workman said the sheriff’s department plans to posthumously honor him with the Lifesaving Award.

Back in the parking lot of the funeral home, Daniel’s family reflected on his last act, and were unsurprised.

“That sounds like him,” said his daughter Jenna Daniel.

Read more:

‘We got free food’: He drove from Tenn., meat smoker in tow, to feed a Kentucky town after tornadoes

One Kentucky family’s story of rescuing a future in-law from a tornado-destroyed factory

After a candle factory collapsed in the tornado, family and first responders mount a desperate rescue effort

Complete coverage: Tornadoes hit several states, killing dozens

President Biden arrived in Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the swaths of damage in areas hardest hit by a string of tornadoes that killed at least 74 people there and 14 in other states.

Live updates: Biden arrives in Kentucky, hardest-hit state after devastating tornado outbreak

Victims: What we know about some of the lives lost in Kentucky

Photos and video: See the damage left by the tornadoes

The storm’s path: Satellite images show leveled buildings

The candle factory: ‘Everyone was trapped’: A candle factory survivor tells her story

Climate: Researchers ponder why Friday’s tornadoes led to so many deaths, despite ample warning