‘Where do I begin?’ Witnessing the destruction in Western Kentucky following deadly tornado

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear was explaining what unfolded throughout the commonwealth in the darkness of night. He talked about death, destruction, and uncertainty.
More than a week after the destruction, we now know the Kentucky tornado killed 78 people--making it likely the worst storm to ever hit the state.
Published: Dec. 21, 2021 at 11:08 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 21, 2021 at 11:09 AM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Fourteen nights before Christmas, life dramatically changed in Western Kentucky.

To use the line from the theme of the film “Love Story,” where do I begin?”

For me, the beginning started at 5 in the morning of Dec. 11. Sleep came hours earlier with the television watching me, but I was awakened by an early AM news conference at five in the morning.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear was explaining what unfolded throughout the commonwealth in the darkness of night. He talked about death, destruction, and uncertainty.

Being a Kentucky native and staying hungry in the news game, I knew that I needed to be home.

Ironically, I had bought plane tickets for an event in Louisville connected to my old high school that week. So, the plan was to be there anyway.

The next step was convincing the bosses that we could get the story done and make it relevant and far different from what was being shared on the networks and cable channels.

Find the local angles, focus on the hometown connections to the Carolinas, and this story will come together.

Pulling it off meant being my own cameraman and producer all rolled into one.

It’s an acquired skill for survival. I am still learning from some of the best.

Among them, Steve Ohnesorge, who recently retired after a 40-year run at WBTV, our current Salisbury bureau chief David Whisenant, and I would be remiss for not mentioning the journalists from our sister station WAVE 3 News in Louisville.

Ferrell “Pug” Wellman and Steve York, who succeeded with film cameras and no instant images back in the 1970′s.

Flying home offered a series of perplexing propositions. What would I see? Who would I meet? How tough would it be to deal with a complicated set of logistics?

After landing at Louisville’s Muhammad Ali International Airport, needed rest for part of the night came in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, which was on the way there.

I felt my heart racing once on the road that next morning.

Drive down Interstate 69, which is part of Western Kentucky Parkway, and the exits read like a history book. Lincoln’s birthplace, Mammoth Cave, the home of Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in Rosine, and Muhlenberg County where the Everly Brothers hail from can be found on this stretch of highway.

Fueled by ambition, adrenaline, caffeine and curiosity, daylight revealed the stirring preview of the unforgettable coming attractions.

Seeing bent aluminum tangled the trees approaching the Dawson Springs exit, which is the home of Gov. Beshear’s father Steve who I covered during his winning run for lieutenant governor in 1983. He would eventually become a two-term governor starting in 2007.

Further down the road, pain, hardship, and suffering would clearly come into view.

Where do I begin?

State Road 121 runs through the heart of Mayfield, Ky., which was the epicenter of damage. It was on this bending ribbon of asphalt I got the first taste of what would be a gripping day.

RVs and campers helplessly scattered across a parking lot with the appearance of what could have been an unorganized child’s toy box. Coming into view was stark the reality of how this community was coping, healing, and making sense of its own recovery.

Understanding the outreach from our area meant tracking down agencies and businesses with people on the ground in Graves County, Ky.

Hours after word of the disaster first surfaced, Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C. announced it would be ramping up operations. Paid staffers and volunteers were spread out in neighborhoods as well as rural communities helping families repair roofs, move debris, or lend a hand in any way possible.

Samaritan’s Purse is also on the ground and actively looking for volunteers who can help those who lost the most.

Related: ‘Adversity draws out the good in people’: WBTV on the ground seeing how Kentucky is healing from tornado

Elliott Willis heads up the response team with Samaritan’s Purse. Regarding the cleanup operation, he said, “There has been a great outpouring and great love for this community.”

Mooresville-based Lowe’s home improvement stores turned its parking lot into a relief center by providing free showers for employees and setting up washers and dryers for families to do laundry.

Lowe’s district manager, Christian Redman, sees it as an act of necessity.

“There is no water,” Redman said. “There is no power. So we’re making sure we provide that as well.”

Assisting Samaritan’s Purse is its companion organization The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Team leader Josh Holland says the need goes beyond replacing material items.

“We have about 25 crisis trained chaplains here that are trained in crisis management and emotional spiritual care that are available to pray with people, listen to people. Just minister God’s love in a time of deep tragedy,” Holland said.

I met Rodney Oliver who lost part of the roof on his home.

It was fixed by volunteers, and he was able to embrace newfound humanity through his experience.

“I think adversity draws out the good in people,” Oliver said.

Where do I begin?

My ending comes from a series of observations.

Having practiced the craft of broadcast journalism for more than 40 years you still never know what the next story can bring. Weather disasters are always telling, from the gripping images to the range of people you meet.

Some survivors remain wrought with despair, and others have an unbridled sense of resolve.

My journey as a journalist has taken me through a number of catastrophic weather events, but none like this.

Hurricanes Hugo and Floyd will always be etched in my psyche. However, there are the international datelines where 20th-century wars have taken place.

Walking through the battlefields of Somalia, Sudan, Sarajevo, and Nicaragua will never leave me.

Despite the time and distance from those locales, the level of damage does not compare with what I found in my home state.

Destruction in Mayfield, Ky., is overwhelming. It remains thick in the air. Homes block after block were flattened. High winds snatched church steeples, and pews inside of the damaged places of worship could be seen from the street.

Time didn’t allow a visit to the candle factory where lives were lost. Shortness of time hindered an opportunity to see farms where animals who had to fend for themselves were among the casualties.

Meanwhile, parting shots and takeaways are a given with any assignment. For me, it was the last piece of video that I grabbed before leaving town that speaks loudly.

It was images of flowers and faces of the fallen attached to a fence outside the heavily damaged Graves County Courthouse.

That tribute reminded me of being in Charleston, S.C., and watching people respond at Mother Emanuel AME after nine people were killed during a night of bible study in 2015.

Just like Charleston, the good people of Mayfield, Ky., will make sure the memories of those they lost will live on as they continue to face their own futures connected to a night of unexpected life-changing terror.

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