Storm smashes West Liberty into rubble

A man who survived the tornado strike in West Liberty, Ky. is loaded onto a stretcher Friday, March 2, 2012. Photo by John Flavell
A man who survived the tornado strike in West Liberty, Ky. is loaded onto a stretcher Friday, March 2, 2012. Photo by John Flavell

WEST LIBERTY — A powerful storm that hit about 6 p.m. Friday smashed the core of this Morgan County city into rubble.

According to the Associated Press, Endre Samu, in the public affairs office of Kentucky State Police in Morehead, said three people were dead in West Liberty and at least 75 were injured.

Emergency responders and citizens hastily banded together to form search parties during the night. Morgan County Deputy Sheriff Kenny Dulin said dozens of people were missing.

If any major building escaped damage downtown, it wasn't readily apparent in the darkness or the flashing lights of police cruisers, ambulances and fire trucks.

CLICK AND DRAG on Charles Bertram's 360-degree image of downtown West Liberty to see the extent of the damage.

"It flattened everything," said Faye Isaac, 42. "The whole town is gone."

Isaac's right cheek was bandaged where she had been cut after part of the Dollar Store roof fell on top of her.

The roof was taken off Commercial Bank and off City Hall across Main Street. The steeple of a Methodist church sat pointy-side up on the ground in front of the church.

Heavy equipment moved splintered wood, bricks and other debris out of the streets,

Residents said they saw a large funnel cloud descend on the city, about 80 miles east of Lexington. Morgan County has a population of 13,923, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Patsy and Zeke Hensley took shelter in the basement of their house when they saw the twister approaching.

"I said, 'That's not thunder. That's a tornado,'" Patsy Hensley said. "It was just a big brown column."

Lexington fire Battalion Chief Ed Davis said Morgan County officials requested assistance from the Bluegrass Emergency Response Team, which includes building collapse specialists and equipment. About a dozen firefighter-paramedics from Lexington, Madison County and Jessamine County also were on the way, Davis said.

Freelance photographer John Flavell talked with Stacy Lemaster and her husband David, who were eating at dinner at Giovanni's restaurant in West Liberty with their three small children when the storm struck. They took refuge under a table, he said.

"Stacy said she thought the table saved their lives because everything just broke loose," Flavell said.

Martha Jo Hall, 65, said she could hear the storm chewing her house apart as she took cover.

"The only thing I could think to pray was 'In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,'" Hall said. "And He took care of us"

Despite the destruction and chaos around her, Hall expressed confidence that West Liberty will recover.

But for now, Cannel City resident Willie Nickell said he had only one word for what he saw of West Liberty: "Devastation."

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