Before the storm
"I was just doing my job"
A tornado develops in Defiance
"It felt like the movie 'Twister'"
Edwardsville tornado develops
"My fear of death I could just not put into words"
Remembering the victims
Families remember the lives lost
One year later
What has changed, and what has stayed the same
On Dec. 10, 2021, an outbreak of tornadoes swept across a swathe of the United States, leaving a trail of destruction and resulting in at least 93 confirmed deaths.
Seven of those victims were in the St. Louis area, as tornadoes blew away homes in Defiance, Missouri, and collapsed an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois.
On the one-year anniversary, 5 On Your Side takes a look back at the timeline of that day, compiled from a year of our reporting, official reports and survivors' first-hand accounts.
We also remember the victims and take a look at what has changed in the year since.
Before the storm: "I was just doing my job"
Dec. 10 was a Friday. Christmas was two weeks away, and the Amazon fulfillment center in Edwardsville was in the midst of peak delivery season.
It had been an abnormally warm December so far, with temperatures ranging from the 60s to the 70s, compared to the usual mid-40s average for that time of year.
Models had indicated a severe system three days in advance, with both the National Weather Service and local broadcasters staffing up ahead of the severe weather.
"Twenty-four hours out we were confident the next day would be dicey," said 5 On Your Side Meteorologist Tracy Hinson, who was working on the day of the tornadoes alongside Scott Connell. "The day of, multiple warnings went out ahead of the tornadoes."
A summary report from NWS St. Louis details the tornado outbreak that would occur across that day.
"By mid-morning of December 10th, confidence had increased of a severe weather outbreak occurring over parts of the Mississippi and lower Ohio River Valleys due to the likelihood of these ingredients being present at the same time," the summary reads.
"This prompted the Storm Prediction Center to upgrade the risk to Moderate (level 4 out of 5) with a few strong, long-track tornadoes, damaging wind gusts and large hail likely across this area during the afternoon and evening hours."
Delivery driver Jamarco Hickman said he left home that day looking forward to the holidays, not knowing the tragedy that would come.
“Amazon definitely could have done more," he told 5 On Your Side earlier this year. “Amazon had more than enough information to know that day that there was a potential for severe weather.”
Delivery driver Deontae Yancey said he started the day with a coat on but discarded it in the afternoon as it became strangely warm.
"I actually had customers that were wondering why we were still delivering packages, knowing there was a tornado coming. And I just told them 'because Amazon wants me to.' So, I was just doing my job," Yancey recounted during a May news conference.
Yancey said he got a message at about 6:40 p.m. from someone with Amazon telling him to go help another driver pick up more packages for delivery. "And I wasn't even done with my route yet. Which didn't make sense to me — I didn't know there was a tornado coming at all."
According to the Storm Prediction Center, "By 7 p.m., a tornado watch had been in effect for over an hour and a half and supercell thunderstorms were ongoing across central Missouri and headed eastward.
"The Storm Prediction Center noted that ingredients were even more favorable for tornadoes as these storms approached the St. Louis metropolitan area.
"This statement came 33 minutes before two supercell thunderstorms within this cluster of storms would begin their paths of destruction and produce three separate strong (EF-2+) tornadoes across our area."
A lawsuit accuses Amazon of requiring employees to keep working as severe weather approached, alleging it threatened to fire employees who tried to leave and seek shelter at home.
“Initial reports from those that survived this avoidable tragedy are disturbing,” said Jack J. Casciato, partner at Clifford Law Offices, which filed the suit on behalf of victim Austin McEwen’s family. “We certainly intend to discover what precautions Amazon could have taken to save lives. Certainly, this entire facility could have been evacuated when it was believed a tornado was en route. It appears that holiday profits took precedence over safety.”
Amazon has disputed several claims in the lawsuit and backed up the team of employees in a statement emailed to 5 On Your Side.
“The local teams were following the weather conditions closely,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. “Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country and, while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down. We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued, and they worked to move people to safety as quickly as possible.”
A tornado develops in Defiance: "It felt like the movie 'Twister'"
At around 7:35 p.m., a tornado had developed in St. Charles County, about one mile north of the intersection of Highway T and Highway 94, and began tracking northeast, according to the NWS. It would be assessed at an Enhanced Fujita Scale rating of 3 (EF3).
The tornado completely destroyed a 110-year-old home and swept another home clean of its subfloor in Defiance, injuring two people and killing an 84-year-old woman. Her husband, who had gotten out of bed to get a glass of water, survived.
Kathleen Flynn and her family made it to their cellar with minutes to spare.
"It felt like the movie 'Twister.' Cellar door flying open, we watched the 4-wheeler fly by. We huddled in the corner and tried to calm down our 8-year-old. A bunch of big tree limbs fell onto the cellar door, so my husband had to move them out of the way and then pull my daughter, myself and our dog out," she shared with 5 On Your Side last year.
Photos: Dec. 10 storm with tornadoes destroys buildings in St. Charles County
The tornado continued northeast, crossing half a mile north of an outlet mall in Chesterfield and 1.5 miles south of the NWS St. Louis Forecast Office, located in Weldon Spring.
"During this time, our employees were forced to take shelter while our colleagues in Kansas City assumed our operations until we were safe," NWS said.
The tornado crossed over the Missouri River three times along its track, lifting at 8:01 p.m. before entering the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre complex.
The New Melle Fire Protection District says their crews responded to the devastation. A path of destruction ran along three miles of Highway F, from the area of Homestead Ridge Drive to Highway 94.
Several homes were destroyed, and a large barn collapsed on five horses. Two of the horses died, and crews spent hours pulling the barn apart to rescue the other three.
Edwardsville tornado develops: "My fear of death I could just not put into words"
At about 8:27 p.m., another tornado touched down on the south side of Interstate 270, around three-quarters of a mile west of the I-270/I-255 interchange, according to the NWS. It moved northeast, rapidly intensifying after crossing I-255.
Amazon was in the middle of a shift change. Hickman was among those at the warehouse, having just arrived back to the warehouse at the end of a day's work of delivering packages. Delivery driver Craig Yost was also at the building finishing his shift.
When Carla and Lynn Cope heard the tornado was heading toward the Amazon warehouse where their son, Clayton "Clay" Cope, was working, they picked up the phone to warn him.
“Meteorologist Tracy Hinson on Channel 5 there — I was watching her,” Lynn Cope said. “That’s why we called because she told us it was coming right for them. We could see that red line on the TV screen.”
Carla Cope said she told him to get to a shelter. His Navy training took over, and he told her he first had to make sure his coworkers got to safety.
“He said he needed to tell someone," Carla Cope said.
The last words they would say to one another were "I love you."
It was a time of day when the south side of the building is mostly empty, according to Amazon representatives. That's where packages ready for shipment went, and most of the day's packages were already out of the facility and the trucks were coming back empty.
"Normally we go in and drop off packages that were undelivered and return our tools that we get, but we were parking vans and being told to take shelter," Yost said.
Driver Jada Williams, who spoke at a news conference in May, said she had only been working at the facility for two weeks. She was warned to return to the warehouse by her cousin, who also worked at Amazon. She said the tornado hit as soon as she got there.
The warehouse did not have a storm shelter but did have a designated "shelter area" that Williams and others ran to.
“It was so many people yelling and screaming, I was trying to calm people down. I started having an asthma attack...," she described. “Ever since that happened, I've barely been getting any sleep. It's like, every time I try to go to sleep, I jump up and I think about what happened in the building."
The EF-3 tornado struck the warehouse with winds at an estimated 150 mph.
Hickman described the moment as "chaos," recalling the screams of his coworkers and the twisting of metal as the forceful wind gusts pummeled the building.
"Hearing those walls collapsing, and the sounds, the loud roar of the tornado when it slammed into our building. And you just don't know, anything can fly at you, like…my fear of death I could just not put into words."
From the time of the first warning, Amazon representatives say workers had 11 minutes to make it to the building's only safe area in the north end of the 1.1 million-square-foot building, which was about the length of three football fields.
Nantel, the Amazon spokeswoman, said in a news conference that employees had been notified of the tornado warning in "a couple of different ways."
"There was a siren. There were alerts on phones. Our leaders took to using bullhorns. They were using radios to get people to move to the shelter-in-place location," she said.
In an interview with 5 On Your Side months after the ordeal, however, Hickman described his former employer as having no plans and no protocols when the tornado struck.
"I just froze," he said, having never participated in a tornado drill with the facility and without any place to hide safely. "I was pretty much kissing the concrete."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) later determined based on interviews that some employees did not remember the location of the safe area and did not recall ever participating in severe weather or shelter-in-place drills.
In a Hazard Alert Letter issued to Amazon, OSHA said that the megaphone that was supposed to be used to activate the shelter-in-place procedure was locked in a cage and inaccessible. Managers adapted by "verbally communicating" where to go.
"Amazon managers began directing employees to go to the restroom in response to local weather alerts and tornado warnings approximately 10 minutes prior to the tornado’s touchdown. Some employees were unaware the designated tornado shelter was the restroom located in the northern portion of the building and instead took shelter in the restroom located in the southern portion of the building," OSHA said in the letter.
Amazon officials would later report that of the 46 people in the building, 39 people took shelter on the north side, while seven were on the south side.
Yost and Cope were among those seven who took shelter inside the restroom toward the south end of the warehouse.
"I saw a flash of the lights [and] a flicker, and I took a step to my right and the wall fell on me," Yost told 5 On Your Side from a hospital room days after the collapse.
A 40-foot concrete wall had collapsed onto the bathroom, killing everyone inside but Yost, who was left injured and trapped beneath the rubble.
The tornado continued northeast, dissipating until it lifted just west of Butler Boulevard at 8:32 p.m. Debris from the warehouse would be found along the storm's entire track, as far as 10 miles away.
Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said that the first call for the collapse came in at around 8:35 p.m. Crews arrived at the scene six minutes later. Soon, more than 100 emergency vehicles had descended upon the building, and a large-scale rescue effort was underway.
Thomas Dewalt, another delivery driver for Amazon, arrived back at the warehouse around five minutes after the storm passed. The lot was already filled with red and blue lights.
"The front corner of the building was still intact, but the back corner was caved in," he said.
Worried family members were arriving to the warehouse as well.
Clay's father, who also worked with Amazon, saw the debris field mentioned on weather coverage and knew exactly where it was located.
“We were lucky enough to get there before they blocked the way, before no one could get up there,” Carla Cope said.
Once the storm had passed, she had known something wasn't right when Clay wasn't answering her calls.
“We parked and walked close, as close as we could, to the building. We could see all the damage on the building, and it was on the south end where he would’ve been," Cope said.
Dewalt said he waited in his car for about 30 minutes, until first responders, concerned about another burst of severe weather, made him and others go to the shelter area inside the building.
"From the tornado shelter area, you could kind of see into the warehouse. From the position I was in, the back corner where I usually check in and grab my bag and stuff like that, keys for the van, all that was caved in. There was a bathroom over there, so that bathroom was gone."
Around 15 minutes later, they started to move people off the property, bussing them to a reunification area at Pontoon Beach Police Department. Dewalt saw the full destruction as he was trying to get to his car.
Debris stretched across the back lot. Several cars were destroyed, and some Amazon vans were nearly pushed into the pond, he said.
Photos: Damage assessment of Edwardsville tornado that struck Amazon warehouse
Yost was trapped underneath the wall for hours as first responders worked to free him.
"I was concentrating on one thing and that was breathing, because I was being crushed by that wall. From the time that it did take, I went from having a little room to none and it started to crush my head at the end, and it was scary," Yost recalled.
He was pulled from the rubble just after midnight and airlifted to Saint Louis University Hospital. He suffered from bruising and fractured bones and underwent surgery on his hip.
Crews spent the rest of the night recovering victims. Cope's body was found at about 4:30 a.m., his mother said.
At a news conference the next evening, officials would announce that the bodies of six workers had been recovered. On Sunday, their identities were announced:
- Deandre S. Morrow, 28, of St. Louis, Missouri
- Kevin D. Dickey, 62, of Carlyle, Illinois
- Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, of Alton, Illinois
- Etheria S. Hebb, 34, of St. Louis, Missouri
- Larry E. Virden, 46, of Collinsville, Illinois
- Austin J. McEwen, 26, of Edwardsville, Illinois
"Those that weren't as lucky as me, I was as close to them as we are to one another in here now at that moment, and that's been a lot to take in," Yost said. "A couple of them I worked very closely with. A couple of them I didn't know well, but if they were in that building and working there, they were good people," Yost said.
Edwardsville officials would later provide photos that were taken the night of the tornado by first responder Dan Bruno, a fire marshal who also has a background in engineering.
Photos: Amazon warehouse collapses following tornado in Edwardsville
Since the tornado had struck during a shift change, Amazon told rescuers they did not have an exact count of how many employees were at the site. Recovery would continue for days as crews worked to make sure there were no more people trapped in the rubble; they found no one else.
Remembering the victims: Families remember the lives lost
Clayton Cope, Alton
Clayton Cope, 29, was a U.S. Navy veteran.
When 5 On Your Side spoke to Cope's mother last year after the tornado, his dog, Draco, was still at the door waiting for him to come home.
“We just kind of adopted Draco," Clay Cope's father, Lynn, said. "This was my son’s dog. He’s been a real help to me, to help me get through things. My daughters really helped me, and Draco does, too, because he understands. He misses him, too.”
One year later, Draco no longer waits. The holidays are approaching again, and an urn containing Clay’s ashes shares the fireplace mantle with Christmas stockings.
The Cope family is now working with state legislators trying to tackle building standards.
DeAndre Morrow, St. Louis
DeAndre Morrow, 28, was supposed to have the day of the tornado off but was called in by dispatch for an extra shift, his mother said. He had been working extra shifts and overtime to pay off a car she had bought him.
Morrow's loved ones said he had a passion for art, music, fashion and his lifestyle brand called Capitalize and Prosper. He worked hard to save money for his dreams, including his plan to propose to his girlfriend, Chelsea Thomas.
Morrow's family is among those who have filed suit against Amazon, claiming wrongful death.
Etheria Hebb, St. Louis
Etheria Hebb, 34, had only been an Amazon driver for two months, her family told 5 On Your Side at a candlelight vigil last year.
"She was outgoing and funny like her dad," said her father, Jeffrey Hebb.
She left behind a son, Malik, who was 1-and-a-half years old at the time.
"He was her only child. She and her son shared a strong bond," Baby Hebb, Etheria Hebb's stepmother, said.
Kevin Dickey, 62, was a kind man who "stole the show and the hearts of his grandchildren anytime he was around," his family told the Marion Republican last year in a statement. They said he had a tight bond with many of his coworkers and would often speak of them.
Dickey’s daughter, Kristen Anastasi, told the newspaper that his work ethic was "unmatched only by his love for his family," and one of his coworkers had assured her Dickey spent his last moments working to get people to safety -- something she said was "exactly what we would expect of him."
One year later, Anastasi said her father was "loved and admired by all that knew him."
"His passing has left a tremendous hole in our hearts. He is deeply missed by all of us," she said.
Larry Virden, Collinsville
Larry Virden, 46, was described in his obituary as an "avid outdoorsman" with a "wonderful sense of humor" who loved racing, hunting and fishing.
According to a GoFundMe fundraiser that was set up to help pay for his funeral, Virden left behind "three young children, a grown child, a 4-year-old granddaughter, a loving fiancé."
Austin McEwen, Edwardsville
Austin McEwen, 26, was described in a GoFundMe set up to assist his family as "a beautiful soul, loved by all who met him" who "had a wonderful smile and gave big, warm hugs."
McEwen once played for several ice hockey teams, including the McKendree University Bearcats, the O'Fallon Panthers and the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks.
After his death, McEwen's former team and friends honored him before one of their games at the McKendree Rec Plex in O'Fallon.
His family is among those who have filed suit against Amazon, claiming wrongful death.
One year later: What has changed, and what has stayed the same
The Edwardsville warehouse, which Amazon leases, is being rebuilt back to "pre-loss conditions," without a storm shelter or any structural changes. According to the building permits, the reconstruction began in June and will cost around $8 million.
Amazon said its structures meet all building code requirements.
An investigation launched by OSHA determined that Amazon’s severe weather emergency procedures met minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering, though there were three issues that “raised concerns about the potential risk to employees during severe weather emergencies.”
No citations or fines were issued.
OSHA, in its Hazard Alert Letter, recommended Amazon review its policies and storm preparedness but there is no enforcement for them to do so. OSHA does not have a standard requiring severe weather emergency plans, but it recommends them.
Since the deadly tornado, Amazon has told 5 On You're Side they're focusing on emergency drills and manager training.
On Friday, the day before the one-year anniversary, Amazon officials made themselves available to the media for comment.
"It's been a real year of grieving and recovery for this community, for our community," Nantel, the Amazon spokeswoman, said. "We've spent a lot of time doing a review of our emergency response and preparedness protocols."
They have increased manager training, required two drills every quarter and issued cards to every employee on how to stay safe in severe weather.
When asked why the new facility would be rebuilt without a storm shelter, Nantel said, "I think it's important to know that we're a tenant in the building, and that the landlord is required to return the building to its pre-condition state, and that's what they're doing."
Illinois Representative Katie Stuart (D-112th District) told 5 On Your Side she has not seen nearly enough change in the year since the tragedy, noting local codes haven't changed to require warehouses in Illinois and Missouri to be built with storm shelters.
Stuart has sponsored a bill, House Bill 1563, that would create a task force of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, structural engineers, and climate change experts. Getting it off the ground has been slow, she said.
"I want to require safer conditions for workers when tornadoes hit, because, let's face it, where we live and the changing nature of our climate, we are going to see these storms get worse and happen more often, Stuart said.
Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush has also spearheaded two pieces of legislation that would come up for a vote early next year. The legislation would, in part, prevent workers from being fired for seeking shelter during severe weather.
"So much more still needs to be done," Bush told 5 On Your Side.
Two wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of the families of DeAndre Morrow and Austin McEwen have been filed against Amazon and five other companies involved in the design and construction of the facility.
A negligent infliction of emotional distress lawsuit was filed on behalf of Amazon drivers Jamarco Hickman, Evan Jensen, Jada Williams and Deontae Yancey who survived the collapse but "suffered physical or mental harm as a result of Amazon’s negligence," according to their lawyers.
Meanwhile, a community is still grappling with the aftermath of tragedy a year later.
Destiny Vuylsteke lives in Wood River nearby and works in downtown Edwardsville.
"It really changed my mindset on how I spend time with my family," she told 5 On Your Side's Robert Townsend on Friday.
Since that day, Vuylsteke no longer looks at life the same.
"Every time I drive by that place, it's real emotional for me. We, as a society, also need to not take our lives for granted because you know it could happen to us, natural disasters," she said.
Mia Hoffmann said her daughter Natalia had worked at the facility a year before the collapse, said it "sends shivers down my spine."
"I cannot believe it's been a year already. How do you move forward from that? It's just kind of sad," Hoffmann said.
Those who work for the Amazon facility have been relocated to a location in Pontoon Beach while rebuilding is underway. Amazon said business leaders will be there Saturday to speak to employees, and a moment of silence will be observed.
5 On Your Side's Paula Vasan, Alex Fees, Tracy Hinson, Elyse Schoenig, Robert Townsend, Christine Byers, Alli Hebel, Justina Coronel, Sara Machi, Holden Kurwicki and Pepper Baker contributed to this report.