What may have been the country’s deadliest-ever outbreak of December tornadoes tore through parts of the Midwest and Tennessee Valley on Friday and Saturday, devastating areas in six states.
The vicious centerpiece was a monster supercell that carved an hours-long, 250-mile path from eastern Arkansas to western Kentucky. At least 70 people were killed in Kentucky alone.
A powerful storm system set up the chaos as it swept from the Rockies toward Canada, triggering high winds over large areas of the Mid-South, Midwest and Great Lakes.
On Friday evening, the storm dragged a strong cold front through the zone from Arkansas to southern Illinois and western Kentucky. Violent thunderstorms erupted when the cold air collided with unseasonably warm air that had set records in the region, and those storms spawned more than 30 tornadoes.
The storm system and the front also generated very strong winds in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, where hundreds of thousands of customers lost power.
The National Weather Service received reports of more than three dozen tornadoes from Friday night to Saturday morning, ranging from Illinois to Mississippi.
One of them caved in the roof of an Amazon distribution warehouse near Edwardsville, Ill., less than 20 miles northeast of St. Louis, killing at least six people inside.
LEFT: Amazon warehouse and building in Edwardsville, Ill. Sept. 24, 2021 (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies) RIGHT: Amazon warehouse and building in Edwardsville, Ill. Dec. 11, 2021 (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)
Another damaged buildings on the Western Kentucky University campus in Bowling Green, where a person was killed in off-campus housing.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, a stretch of homes was badly damaged or destroyed along a road in Dickson County, Tenn., and several people were trapped. Near Defiance, Mo., at least one person died of injuries caused by an intense tornado.
But the largest and deadliest tornado — which may have been more than one tornado spawned by the same supercell — formed in Arkansas after 7 p.m. and chewed through swaths of towns and rural areas until nearly midnight, tossing debris more than 30,000 feet in the air as it went.
Among the first places hit was Trumann, Ark. At 7:24 p.m., a tornado touched down in Monette, Ark., and ripped apart a nursing home, killing one person and injuring five.
LEFT: An aerial view of Monette Manor nursing home in February 2021. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies) RIGHT: An aerial view of Monette Manor nursing home on Saturday, after a tornado passed through the area. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)
Shortly afterward in nearby Leachville, a woman was killed inside a Dollar General store as the storm “wadded up” the store’s steel frame "like an aluminum can,” said Chuck Brown, a business owner and sheriff’s department lieutenant in the county.
Cabins were turned to sticks at Cypress Point on the banks of Reelfoot Lake in the tiny town of Samburg, Tenn., where two people died.
The National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., estimated that the storm was three-quarters of a mile wide when it roared through Cayce, Ky., and headed for Mayfield.
LEFT: Homes and buildings in Mayfield, Ky., on Jan. 28, 2017. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies) RIGHT: Damaged homes and buildings in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday after a tornado passed through the area. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)
About 9:30 p.m., the town of Mayfield, Ky., took a direct hit. Many of the buildings were leveled, homes were sheared from their foundations and commercial buildings were flattened, including a candle factory where scores of workers were trapped inside when the walls and roof caved in. Dozens are feared dead.
LEFT: An aerial view of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., in January 2017. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies) RIGHT: An aerial view of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday. Many workers were trapped inside when the walls and roof caved in as a tornado passed through the area. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies)
Minutes later, the storm slammed into a tiny burg of 2,600 up the road. “A good portion of Dawson Springs is gone,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear of his father’s hometown.
Just before 11 p.m., 27 cars of a train were derailed and overturned in Earlington, Ky. One tanker car reportedly landed 75 yards away from the track. Another car landed on a nearby house, and other homes were reduced to debris.
About 11 p.m., at least 11 people were killed in tornadoes in Muhlenberg County, Ky. One slammed into the town of Bremen, two hours after a smaller storm had wrecked a hardware store, the local Leader News reported.
Not long after, the massive supercell stopped rotating, but storms continued to plague the region into Saturday morning.
Lauren Tierney, Chiqui Esteban, Shelly Tan and Jason Samenow contributed to this story.
Hourly wind speed data from NOAA Global Systems Laboratory. Satellite composite from European Space Agency. Tornado reports and supercell locations from National Weather Service.