EDWARDSVILLE, Illinois — Amazon employees had 11 minutes to get to what’s known as a “safe area” inside a building that’s about the length of three football fields in Edwardsville before a tornado took down half of it on Friday night.
The majority of the 46 employees who were on-site that day made it to the building’s only safe area on the north side of the structure and survived, according to Amazon representatives.
The six people who were killed and one person who was seriously injured were in the south half of the building, which collapsed.
The Occupational Safety and Hazard Agency, or OSHA, has opened an investigation, which is expected to take six months – an investigation Amazon representatives said they welcome.
“We are committed to this community, we're going to rebuild this site,” said John Felton, Amazon’s Senior Vice-President of Global Delivery.
Felton joined Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during a press conference Monday after the governor toured the area.
Pritzker said the four-year-old building was “up to code,” but vowed to investigate whether codes for warehouses like the Amazon facility need to be changed.
"Already, there has been an effort to determine if there were any structural issues, what exactly the storm's trajectory was coming in and affecting the various pieces of the building so that has already begun and is ongoing," Pritzker said.
The safe area inside the facility was considered a safe area only because it had no windows.
“We are ensuring there is a full understanding of what happened to these individuals in their final moments," Pritzker said.
He also said many warehouses do not have basements in Illinois due to floodplain issues.
Meanwhile, Amazon representatives say they are shifting operations to a sister facility in nearby Pontoon Beach, giving affected employees paid time off, access to car rentals if their vehicles were damaged, and counseling.
Amazon supervisors used bullhorns and radios to warn employees about the tornado warning. Warnings also came out on devices employees use to track packages, which contractor Thomas Dewalt likened to a cellphone.
He was among those who made it to the safe area inside the 1.1 million-square-foot facility, which he compared to a movie theater bathroom area.
“On one side is a men's bathroom and on the other side is a women's, so we were just all in that area,” he said.
The tornado hit at about 8:30 p.m. – a time when the south side of the building is mostly empty, said Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman.
It’s where packages ready for shipment go. Most of the packages from the day were already out of the facility and the trucks were coming back empty, Nantel explained.
She said Amazon has a lot of seasonal employees like most companies do during the holiday rush, and that all employees – including seasonal contractors – are briefed on the building’s safety protocols as part of their training.
Felton said he doesn’t foresee any disruption to package deliveries, as the company has shifted its operations to the sister facility in Pontoon Beach.
“We have enough assets in this area to move the workload,” he said.
Amazon spokesman Richard Rocha said the company’s leaders followed the company’s emergency protocols.
“Our immediate response was to have our leaders make sure that as many people as possible go to the safest place they can go, and that's exactly what happened,” he said. “And we think that obviously because of our leaders' quick actions, there were a lot of lives saved that night.”
Employees like Dewalt are still trying to process what happened.
“It is still somewhat of disbelief because, if I would have made there a little earlier, I probably would have been in the worst part of it. Basically, I could have been killed in that in that accident,” he said. “I could have died.”