Disbelief, perseverance as tornado ravages Kentucky town

A helicopter carrying Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear flies over the battered town of West Liberty.

Story highlights

  • An EF-3 tornado tore through West Liberty in Morgan County, Kentucky
  • It devastated the town's Main Street, reducing buildings to rubble
  • Yet officials say it is fortunate the town didn't have more than 1 dead
  • "We know we can get through this," a county executive says

Head down Main Street in West Liberty, Kentucky, and you'd come across establishments that make this town feel like home for its 3,000 residents.

Around 7 p.m. Friday, an unwelcome visitor -- an EF-3 tornado packing top sustained winds of 135 mph, according to the National Weather Service -- came and turned this once-charming hub of Morgan County, nestled in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, into what now looks like a war zone.

David Wilson was there when it happened, huddled with several others in a restaurant's freezer. After the twister passed, he walked out to see that "there ain't nothing left of this town."

"There was a little kid standing there, too," Wilson recalled. "He looked up at his mother and father (and said), 'Mommy, does this always happen when a tornado comes?'"

Many buildings on the town's main drag had been reduced to rubble. The building next to the police station was leveled, while police cars themselves had flipped. Potent winds ripped up the courthouse, knocked out a barbershop and tore holes in many other pockets of the community.

Yet town and county officials stressed that it could have been much worse. Four people died throughout Morgan County, and just one of those in West Liberty itself.

"We are happy to report (it is) not 104, because we could have lost a whole lot more lives in this thing," said Morgan County executive Tim Conley of the death toll.

One man was trapped under up to 10 feet of debris but was found not to be seriously hurt when he was pulled out, said Mike Lacy, who is with the county's emergency operations team.

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vo nat west liberty tornado prayers_00001904


    Woman prays while tornado approaches


Woman prays while tornado approaches 01:43

Rescuers were able to pry two people -- one of them transported to a hospital in critical condition -- from an overturned car, Lacy added. He added that 75 people were transported Friday night to area hospitals with injuries that ranged from minor to serious.

On Saturday afternoon, after having "searched and searched and searched again," officials appeared confident that there were no more people dead or hurt. The area was on lockdown then, with stringent restrictions on people coming in as authorities continued recovery operations and worked to ensure the scene was safe.

Yet the emotional wounds and the monumental task of bringing West Liberty and Morgan County back to life economically were harder to assess and to address.

Conley, the county executive, choked up in expressing thanks for the "overwhelming" support that had already come in from outside. But as important, he said, is how county residents have and will stand strong for their extended family -- each other.

"There are 13,923 citizens in this county. And we all know each other," Conley said. "We play ball together, we go to church together, we do everything together. (And) we've come together."

Wilson said he expects to see even more of his neighbors at church this Sunday, recalling hearing people praying "just let us get through this" -- and, in some cases, promising to attend services if they did -- while in that restaurant freezer.

Beyond that, West Liberty Mayor Jim Rupe said his first order of business is to get a damaged city hall up and running, in some form, by early next week "to set an example for the rest of the people."

Returning to some semblance of normal will take much longer. But officials said they have no doubt that West Liberty, and Morgan County, will be back again. Residents, they say, wouldn't have it any other way.

"We know we can rebuild," said Lacy. "We know we can get through this."