The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At candle factory obliterated by the tornado, one victim was everybody’s friend

Nearly everyone who worked with Kayla Smith considered her a friend, or a best friend, or practically a sister

Kayla Smith, right, with friend Kristeena Rushing. (Kristeena Rushing)

MAYFIELD, Ky. — She had worked production lines, setting wicks into scented candles for Procter & Gamble. She spent time in inventory, keeping track of packaging materials. She operated machines and printed labels.

Kayla Smith, 30, knew every corner of Mayfield Consumer Products. Her longtime partner, Justin Bobbett, was the supervisor overseeing the second shift, and her cousin worked the early shift. Nearly everyone who knew her there considered her a friend, or a best friend, or practically a sister.

When she died, one of those friends was there to hold her hand.

Smith was at work when a powerful tornado destroyed the candle factory in Mayfield, turning a building that stood two stories high into a mound of jagged rubble. She was among the eight victims at the factory — fewer than officials initially feared but no less devastating for the community.

More than 90 people were killed across five states in the storm, the vast majority in Kentucky as the tornado churned a deadly path to the northeast. It represents the worst death toll from a tornado in the state’s history.

Smith always looked forward to this time of year. She loved any excuse to decorate, friends said, and never missed a chance to see the holiday light show in nearby Paducah, where hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights twinkle across a large public park.

The factory, too, was buzzing. It was set to be the last holiday rush in a facility that was too small for the growing business, employees said. In January, the company planned to move to a new, much larger site a few miles north of town.

The candle factory was the third-largest employer in the county and always needed more hands. It drew workers from the surrounding towns, temp agencies, a nearby prison and as far away as Puerto Rico, where it started a recruitment program several years ago.

Smith grew up in the town of Fulton, Ky., and trained as a certified nurse’s assistant after graduating from high school. She and Bobbett had been together for a decade, and she also went by his last name. Eventually she gravitated toward the factory where her partner worked. She was “close to damn near everybody there,” said Kristeena Rushing, 29, a scrap supervisor who was one of her best friends.

Smith had inside jokes with almost every co-worker, said BJ Rowell, 40, another close friend. She had a taste for mischief: Sometimes there were glitter bombs at work, or offices that were transformed beyond recognition. She could be silly, but she was very capable. When a worker had a drug overdose at the factory earlier this fall, it was Smith who responded, calmly and firmly giving directions until an ambulance arrived.

On Friday night, Rowell was scheduled to work the second shift starting at 5 p.m. As she drove to the factory, a tire in her car blew out and the spare didn’t fit properly. Rowell, who recently separated from her husband, messaged Smith about how alone and broken she felt in that moment.

“You are never alone when you have me as a friend and in your life no matter what,” Smith replied. “No matter what it is the small things the big hard I’m here always hell or high water.”

Rowell never made it to her shift. “And I was mad about it,” she said. “Seems silly now, right?”

The second shift ran until 3:30 a.m., 10 hours plus a half-hour break. Bobbett was the supervisor in charge, a man of few words who seemingly could fix anything, friends said. It wasn’t unusual for him to work even longer hours, staying past sunrise.

Michelle Hand, 34, another dear friend of Smith’s, no longer worked at the factory, but that’s where the two first met. It wasn’t an instant bond: Hand was the new girl, recently arrived from California, and started as a production line supervisor. Smith was a wick setter on the line and didn’t care for the new boss.

Slowly, then suddenly, the two women became almost inseparable. On Friday night, Hand was at home in Mayfield. When she heard about the disaster, she had only one thought: That’s where Kayla is.

When she arrived at the wreckage, she headed toward the spot where she thought Smith might be, searching for the point in the rubble where the designated tornado shelter — a hallway — once stood. Volunteers were standing in the debris, using boards to pass the survivors and the dead toward open ground.

Someone called out that there was another victim who needed CPR. Hand turned and saw an arm hanging down off a board. “And I said, ‘That’s Kayla,’” said Hand, her voice keening with grief.

A paramedic began chest compressions. “I just held her hand and begged her to hold on, and begged God not to take her,” Hand said. “I said, ‘Babe, I got you, I’m here, please, please.' ”

After Smith died, Hand’s phone rang. It was Bobbett. He was one of the first people taken out of the wreckage with minor injuries. “Have you heard from Kayla?” he asked as soon as Hand answered. All she could say was how sorry she was. He asked her if she was sure.

She said yes. And she told him Smith hadn’t been alone.

Hand has spent the days since the storm distraught, sometimes drinking whiskey to numb the pain. When she tries to find the words for that night, she closes her eyes and winces, shaking her head as if to rid it of the images there.

Her grief is morphing into anger. The factory “only cared about making candles,” she said. “The community did amazing things, but MCP, that company, did nothing.” She said the company should have sent everyone home ahead of the storm. The company said it had a pandemic-era policy of allowing employees to leave a shift if they feel uncomfortable and return without penalty.

On Tuesday night, Hand was among hundreds of people who attended an outdoor candlelight service organized by a local church, standing together under a dark sky and singing “Amazing Grace.” Dozens of current and former factory employees were there.

They talked quietly about Bobbett and the burden he must bear. They defended him against those who said employees should have been sent home ahead of the storm. “He wouldn’t make that decision,” said Luis Barnecet, 38, a supervisor, saying they follow the directions of senior management.

Barnecet saw Bobbett after the disaster. “It breaks my heart,” he said. “You’re never prepared to lose the love of your life.”

Bobbett declined to answer questions. Smith’s mother and one of her sisters did not respond to efforts to reach them. The family is already reeling from the loss of one of Smith’s cousins earlier this year in a car accident, friends said. No plans have been set for a funeral.

Each of her friends expressed the same feeling in different words. “If there was one person that walked out of that building, I wanted it to be Kayla,” Rowell said.