It took everything Kyanna Parsons-Perez had to keep from panicking after heavy winds collapsed the building she was in and pinned her to the ground under piles of heavy debris.
Parsons-Perez was one of many workers trapped under the rubble of a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, after it was struck by a tornado late Friday.
“It happened so fast,” Parsons-Perez told CNN, describing the onslaught of destruction the tornado waged at the factory. “We all just rocked back and forth, and then boom, everything fell on us.”
Here are some stories from those who made it out alive.
‘Boom, everything fell on us’
Parsons-Perez was working her shift at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory when the tornado struck.
She was one of more than 100 people working at the factory, which had been “going 24/7” in part to meet Christmastime candle demand, Rep. James Comer, who represents the area, told CNN.
The horror began when she felt wind, despite being deep in the building where she and other workers were taking cover in a storm shelter.
The lights flickered and her ears began to pop, she remembers. Seconds later, the building was being torn apart around her, collapsing like a house of cards, she said.
“It was like one of the people took one of the pieces,” she said, “and the top fell down and just caved in on us.”
Something hit her head and when the chaos stopped, she found her legs pinned underneath a water fountain. When rescuers arrived, she was told she was trapped under at least 5 feet of debris.
Coworkers surrounded her. Some cried out for her help. Others prayed.
Parsons-Perez cracked jokes to try to keep people calm.
“I don’t know who’s watching,” she said, as her panicked co-workers are heard in the background. “Y’all please send us some help. We are trapped. The wall is stuck on me.
“Nobody can get to us. Y’all. Pray for us. Try and get somebody to help us.”
Eventually, her supervisor and inmates who were working at the factory as part of a work-release program for low-security, low-level offenders started to break down the drywall to get them some air.
When rescue workers arrived, they evacuated everyone in her section before finally getting to her. The crew worked to remove debris from under her, until she was able to shift her body up and free her legs.
With one person pushing up from under her and another person pulling her arms up, she was able to climb up the 5 feet of rubble to get out, she said.
“Once I got out of there, I couldn’t do anything but thank God,” she said. “That’s the only thing that saved me. It’s unbelievable that anybody walked away from there.”
‘It missed us by a hair’
A group of friends went on a duck hunting trip at Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake State Park when they found themselves in the path of a tornado.
Cayden Rawls, Korbin Stanton and Aaron Jones, who are originally from Buffalo, Texas, were visiting Tiptonville the day of Jones’ college graduation.
Rawls said they knew there was a chance of thunderstorms and wind ahead of their trip, but they were unaware of the potential destruction.
As they arrived in Tennessee and began unloading their truck, they heard a tornado warning siren.
“We found out there were tornadoes when we heard the sirens … about 15 minutes later it hit,” Jones told CNN.
The three friends scrambled into their room at a motel shortly before the tornado. About 50 feet from their hotel was a trailer park.
When they opened the door after the tornado, everything except for their truck and a few other cars had disappeared, Rawls said. Trailers, cars and trees were gone or torn into pieces.
“There was a camper about 20 feet behind my truck, and the tornado completely wiped it out,” Rawls said.
“You could almost see the line where the tornado went behind my truck and took the camper and everything behind it, and all it did to my truck was break the glass out,” Rawls said. “It missed us by a hair.”
For three hours, the men searched for survivors and helped strangers they saw wandering around until law enforcement arrived, said Rawls, a volunteer firefighter with the Buffalo Volunteer Fire Department.
“You see this on TV all the time, you don’t imagine you’re going to see it right there in front of you and it’s like, ‘Crap, what do I do?'” Rawls said. “You can’t train for stuff like this.”
‘I knew more were coming’
Jeffery Weir was home alone in Bay, Arkansas, watching the local news and tracking the storm on his iPad when the power went out.
After stepping outside to check on the weather, lightning struck and Weir shockingly caught a glimpse of an unexpected tornado. Weir, who grew up in Bay, was used to wind storms, but nothing like this.
Initially, he wasn’t scared, he said, but then he heard tree limbs cracking and thought he could get hurt. He ran inside.
“That was just the first line of storms,” he said. “I knew more were coming.”
A photo he took showed the twister whizzing through right ahead of him.
After seeing the tornado, Weir found himself getting increasingly worried — he had no way to check on the direction of the tornado. And with the darkness outside and risk of injury from the falling tree limbs, he had no choice but to wait.
For the duration of the storm, he huddled with his dog and waited for his friends to call and update him on the tornado’s path. Hours later when the sun came up, Weir was able to see the devastation the tornadoes had caused in Trumann, a town about 5 five miles away.
Homes were ripped apart. Roofs had been blown away. Debris scattered across every field and road.
“It was just heartbreaking to see the damage and loss of life in the area,” he said. “My heart aches for those that have lost their homes, especially just before Christmas. I know it will be difficult to clean up and even rebuild. It will take time.”
‘A piece of my heart is broken’
Leisha Doran was full of holiday cheer Friday at Good News Shoppe, a Christian bookstore she has owned in Mayfield, Kentucky, hours before the tornadoes tore through her state.
“Everybody was so happy. We were singing and laughing and having a good time,” Doran told CNN.
Doran lost power and cell phone service and had no way to check on her store.
Eventually, she received a text telling her that the bank and courthouse next to her store had been destroyed.
“And then this morning when I came, it was just really sad to see it (had been destroyed),” she said.
“We had just had a great day on Friday, and then this morning, it’s gone.”
Doran shared the news on Facebook, along with photos of her shop before and after the storm. One recent picture showed the holiday decorations she had just put up.
“A piece of my heart is broken,” she captioned the photo. “I had just taken this picture & this is how I will always remember it. So thankful none of us were there tonight.”
Despite the loss of her business, which had been running for 42 years, Doran said the hardest part is the many loved ones who were lost in the storm.
“Things can be replaceable, but your family, your friends, they can’t be,” she said. “So that’s been a really hard part today.”
‘I’ve never felt more isolated in my life’
Hayley Gibson’s Friday nights usually consist of playing video games online or studying for her art history class. Eating dinner on the floor of her dorm room bathroom is usually not part of the plan.
But when Edwardsville, Illinois, was placed on tornado warning and students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville were told a tornado had touched down, things got very dark.
Gibson was in the middle of playing Fortnight with her friends when she lost power and was instructed, along with the rest of the students in her dorm, to shelter in their individual bathrooms.
“I didn’t feel all that safe,” the 22-year-old told CNN. “I was ready to get collapsed in on, honestly. I kind of went on a rollercoaster of being bored, and lonely, and scared, and then trying to make myself laugh through it all.”
Heavy rain and intense winds lashed at her windows and tossed around trees while Gibson sat on her bathroom floor in the dark for four hours, unable to contact family or friends.
While Gibson made it out safely, the destruction made her realize how grateful she is for her life and those around her.
“I’ve never felt more isolated in my life,” she said. “When it got really bad out there, I was just kind of like, ‘I lived a good life! I don’t fear death, actually.'”
‘The whole town is gone’
Residents in Mayfield, home to the candle factory and one of the most devastated communities, have no idea what’s in store for their cherished city.
Steven Elder, a banker who is active in the Kentucky city of about 10,000 residents, said the tornadoes “cut through the heart of Mayfield.”
The town’s once picturesque county square, which they have struggled to keep thriving with new shops, is gone. The courthouse steeple has been toppled. All that remains is the debris of what once was the city’s soul.
“Every historical building we have is on the ground, churches that have been around for hundreds of years hundreds of years,” Elder said. “It’s like a war zone or just something out of the movies.”
Antique buildings that used to be clothing factories, a big centerpiece of the town, have also been shredded. So was their First Presbyterian Church, as well as the town’s historic Carr’s steakhouse and the City Hall.
“It’ll never look the same,” he said. “The whole town is gone.”
Elder, a former city council member, is on the board of the Mayfield Community Foundation, which raised money for Covid-19 relief and is now raising money for tornado recovery.
The biggest concern now, Elder says, is the impact the tornadoes have had on community members, many of whom lost loved ones or are waiting to hear news on those who remain missing.
For now, the tight knit community will work together on search and rescue and to clean up what remains, including clearing roads and restoring power.
And while Christmas might not look the way it did last year, the spirit of the holidays will remain in the gratitude and love that will reunite the small city of Mayfield.
“It’s not the presents under the tree (this year),” Elder said. “It’s the fact that we’re able to be together.”
CNN’s Paul P. Murphy and Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.
Survivors describe the fear and horror they endured as tornadoes tore through the southern and central US