After an alert was issued Friday night about a deadly tornado approaching Illinois, Carla Cope told her son “to get to shelter” at the Amazon delivery facility where he was working.
Instead, she told The Daily Beast her 29-year-old son, Clayton, insisted he needed to alert others about the impending natural disaster.
“He just said he needed to tell someone that [the tornado] was coming,” Cope told The Daily Beast on Saturday, hours after she learned her son was among six people killed in Edwardsville, Illinois, when storms ripped through. “He had a big heart and he was a very sweet man.”
The deadly incident at Edwardsville mirrors a grim scene in at least six other states, after what could be the longest reported tornado path in history. The natural disaster has killed at least 70 people in Kentucky and three in Tennessee—and left hundreds scrambling to restart their lives after their homes were obliterated.
“The level of devastation is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said. “This will be, I believe, the deadliest tornado system to have ever run through Kentucky.”
A Navy spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast that Clayton Cope enlisted in 2010 and served as an Aviation Electronics Technician for a majority of his service. Before separating from the Navy in September 2016, he received a series of awards and decorations, including the national defense service medal and the global war on terrorism expeditionary medal.
“He was a ‘one of one’ kind of person,” Leighton Grothaus, one of Clayton’s longtime friends, told The Daily Beast. “I knew him most of my life. He was the kind of person who would take the shirt off his back for anyone. He would go out of his way to say hi, bubbly, buy anyone a drink at the bar.”
Cope said her son started his job as maintenance mechanic at the Amazon fulfillment center earlier this year. When he wasn’t working, Cope said her son “loved riding his Harley and fishing.”
Grothaus added that he last spoke to his friend on Friday afternoon as he was about to clock into work at Amazon.
“I am at home visiting for the weekend and I wanted to set up a lunch for today,” said Grothaus, a 25-year-old full-time farmer. “He was so excited and we were both looking forward to it.”
Grothaus added that as the tornado alerts were going off on Friday night, another friend informed him that “the Amazon building collapsed.”
“That’s when I got that real sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I started texting Claying, calling him. But he never answered,” he said. “It was devastating.”
After the storm passed on Friday, Cope said she raced down to the warehouse to search for her son. Cope added that it wasn't until 4:30 a.m. that authorities confirmed her son was among the employees who died in the natural disaster.
“[It was] gut-wrenching, nauseating, and heartbreaking,” Cope said about learning the news of her son’s death.
Officials say the storm took the roof off the Amazon warehouse, leaving dozens of employees trapped inside at the time of the collapse. The entire southern portion of the warehouse also was destroyed by the storm.
“About half of it’s missing, it’s gone,” Edwardsville Fire Department Mark Mayfield said Saturday of the approximately 400,000-square-foot building. Edwardsville Police Chief Mike Fillback added “there’s a lot of debris from the concrete; that is predominantly a concrete and steel structure.”
Fillback confirmed Cope was among the half-dozen people who died as a result of the natural disaster in Edwardsville. Authorities said that Deandre Morrow, 28; Kevin Dickey, 62; Etheria Hebb, 34; Larry Virden, 46; and Austin McEwen, 26 died in the Amazon warehouse on Friday night.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re continuing to support our employees and partners in the area.”
While officials across several states are still scrambling to save residents who could still be trapped under the tornado’s destruction, a Kentucky judge has also been identified as a victim of the natural disaster.
The Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court confirmed in a Saturday tweet that Judge Brian Crick, who “served McLean and Muhlenberg counties, lost his life during the storm.” On Twitter, the father of five called himself a “devoted husband and dad. District Judge in the 45th Judicial District in KY.”
"This is a shocking loss to his family, his community and the court system, and his family is in our prayers,” the statement added. “I have asked our justices, judges, circuit court clerks and AOC managers to try to determine the safety of any court staff in Western Kentucky, and what we can do to help any who need shelter, food or clothing.”