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Survivors question safety after deadly Amazon warehouse tornado

Thursday marks two months since a tornado destroyed an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, killing six people.
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 10:35 AM CST
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EDWARDSVILLE (KMOV) -- Thursday marks two months since a tornado destroyed an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, killing six people.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating and the family of one of the victims is suing Amazon.

In the weeks since the storm, some survivors question if more could have been done to protect them, while Amazon says its team did the right thing.

TORNADO HITS EDWARDSVILLE

On Dec. 10 panicked 911 calls captured Amazon employees who called for help. They were working in the warehouse when a tornado struck. Six people who took cover in a bathroom never made it home.

Six people died after part of the Amazon warehouse collapsed in Edwardsville when storms rolled through Friday night, police said.

Alonzo Harris is one of 40 employees working in the warehouse who survived.

“Nobody wakes up and thinks this is the day I’m going to die,” Harris said.

Harris is a delivery driver for Amazon. He says the day of the storm, he returned to the warehouse and was immediately flagged down by a manager.

“Stop your vehicles, there is a storm coming, seek shelter,” Harris recalled.

Harris says he followed coworkers to Amazon’s “take shelter area.” He describes it as a windowless hallway. After the storm, Amazon repeatedly said the space was not designed to be a storm shelter.

“The floor started shaking like it was coming off the ground, I was in the corridor and I turned around and all of a sudden I saw debris flying in the air,” Harris added. “I screamed all out, ‘lord I don’t wanna get sucked away.’”

The warehouse stood at more than one million square feet. The “take shelter area” was in the north side of the building. It’s the south part that took a direct hit.

“If you have resources to build stronger buildings you could do it, build safe rooms or something, you could do it,” Harris said.

TORNADOES AND BUILDING CODES

The Amazon warehouse wasn’t built to withstand an EF-3 storm. It was built using a type of construction called tilt-up, which has a history of catastrophic failure during powerful tornados.

Tilt-up construction involves lifting pre-formed concrete wall panels, which are supported by the roof. When strong winds hit, they travel up the walls. If the roof is torn off it can cause the walls to collapse.

One month after a deadly Amazon warehouse collapse in Edwardsville, workers continue to push better safety procedures during emergency situations.

After the Edwardsville tornado, the Tilt-Up Concrete Association released a statement reading in part, “We mourn the lives lost in the tragic storms that recently ravaged a great swath of our country. Our hearts and minds are with the families, friends, and communities — all lives affected.”

The statement went on to say there are misconceptions about tilt-up construction and that few structures are designed to withstand tornadoes.

“The design and construction of all buildings, regardless of construction methodology or material, is directed by local, state, and national building codes that set minimum standards for design loads, including the level of force from high wind events based on a period of probability,” the statement said.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been part of studies that led to building code changes.

“Ordinary buildings are not designed for tornados,” explained NIST Lead Research Engineer Marc Levitan. “The word tornado does not appear in our building codes or standards, with the exception of if we’re discussing storm shelters.”

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE JOPLIN TORNADO

Levitan led the study following the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri. The EF-5 storm left a devastating mile-wide path and killed 161 people. Of the people killed, NIST researchers found 135 deaths were caused by “building failures.”

The study looked at the Home Depot, which was built using tilt-up construction. The metal roof flew away and almost every wall crumbled, leaving eight dead.

NIST researchers found similarly constructed buildings were “prone to structural collapse,” but met building codes. Building codes were required to withstand 120 mph winds, but speeds during the Joplin tornado were nearly double.

“Traditional steel frame or concrete frame structures have more redundancy in them so they may have more localized damage but are less likely to suffer a larger collapse,” Levitan explained.

News 4 Investigates asked Levitan if there have been any conversations about adding storm shelters to buildings that could be more vulnerable.

“Certainly, NIST recommends that we install storm shelters across a wide range of building types in most tornado prone regions of the country and owners need to look at their own risk structure,” Levitan said.

After Joplin, federal building codes changed to require storm shelters in schools. There is no state mandate for shelters in warehouses or large commercial spaces in Missouri or Illinois.

“If the goal is to protect life safety, then that’s the most important thing, to install a storm shelter,” Levitan added.

The city of Joplin weighed requiring shelters, but decided not to go that route. Instead the city’s Chief Building Official, Bryan Wicklund, said many people did it on their own.

“We saw more commercial buildings put in storm shelters,” Wicklund said. “I’m one for leaving that up to the owner if they choose to do that.”

Joplin leaders did decide to go above and beyond standard building codes, which included requiring hurricane strappings to better hold down roofs.

“This tornado was so powerful and devastating it made us really appreciate how powerful mother nature can be,” said Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley.

Stanley said as many rebuilt they chose construction that went even farther above city hall mandates. He pointed to the new Mercy Hospital, formerly known as St. John’s Regional Medical Center. During the tornado, the hospital took a direct hit and 14 people inside died. When the hospital rebuilt, Stanley noted it added shatter-proof glass and shored up the building to brace it for higher wind speeds.

“We’re starting to ask ourselves, all of the things we thought were safe before, how are they not as safe as we wish they were?”, Stanley added.

In December the American Society of Civil Engineers released a new standard to protect buildings during tornadoes. The standard covers storms from EF-0 to EF-2, but are meant for buildings considered “critical infrastructure”, including fire stations and hospitals.

WHAT HAPPENED IN EDWARDSVILLE?

News 4 Investigates repeatedly asked Amazon about what happened before the storm hit, and if there are any plans to add shelters in areas prone to tornadoes. Amazon declined an interview and instead asked News 4 to use the statement the company issued in January in response to the family of Austin McEwen filing a lawsuit. McEwen was one of six who died when the tornado hit the Amazon facility.

The statement says in part, “the truth is that this was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely.”

The McEwen family is represented by Attorney Jack Casciatio. The family is suing Amazon, the construction company and developer for negligence.

The family of a 26-year-old delivery driver who was killed when a tornado hit an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville is filing a lawsuit.

“If you weren’t going to send these workers home, have a safe place for them to go,” Casciatio said. “Amazon is able to sell online FEMA shelters, but their actual facilities couldn’t have for its workers. Amazon’s position of we don’t have to have them by law, how about have them for safety?”

Casciatio claims Amazon didn’t follow its emergency procedures.

“Those on the south side of the building were directed by Amazon to shelter in the bathroom,” he said.

Amazon won’t comment on its emergency procedures. The company’s full statement in response to the lawsuit reads:

“This lawsuit misunderstands key facts, such as the difference between various types of severe weather and tornado alerts, as well as the condition and safety of the building. The truth is that this was a new building less than four years old, built in compliance with all applicable building codes, and the local teams were following the weather conditions closely. 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. We will defend against this lawsuit, but our focus continues to be on supporting our employees and partners, the families who lost loved ones, the surrounding community, and all those affected by the tornadoes.”

News 4 Investigates obtained a copy of Amazon’s Emergency Action Procedure for North America. The document lists corporate emergency contacts and explains how staff are expected to respond to numerous emergency situations including tornadoes.

Amazon wouldn’t tell News 4 Investigates if it had a meteorologist on staff in December 2021 when the tornado hit in Edwardsville, or if the job posting was a reaction to the storm.

According to the procedure, during a tornado watch Amazon staff need to check local forecasts and the National Weather Service. If it elevates to a tornado warning, staff have a “take shelter signal” and everyone goes to the “designated shelter area.”

Two days after the Edwardsville tornado, an Amazon spokeswoman said that process worked.

“Any time there is a circumstance there are ways you want to go back and look at ways to improve it, but in this case the team did what they are trained to do and the employees did what they were trained to do. They moved with a sense of urgency,” said Amazon Director of Media Relations Kelly Nantel.

Alonzo Harris has a different account. He says most employees weren’t in the take shelter area when the tornado hit.

“Only eight people in there,” Harris said. “People were in the warehouse and in the restroom who got knocked down and hurt.”

OSHA has six months from the storm to complete its investigation. Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker wants lawmakers to work on building code changes.

“With all the warehouses that are being built or have been built, should we be setting a state standard for that,” Pritzker said.

Harris calls that the right way to go, delivering added safety to employees.

“The people who didn’t survive, they’re always in the back of my head,” Harris said.

As Amazon now looks to rebuild, the tornado risk remains.

News 4 Investigates checked weather records from Madison County and surrounding parts of Missouri and Illinois. In the past decade there have been at least 72 tornados, according to records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That count only goes through September 2021, and doesn’t include the Edwardsville storm.

In Amazon’s statement after the lawsuit, the company acknowledged the area’s severe weather risk, saying “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.”