Year after deadly tornado, families question safety at Amazon
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - This week marks one year since a tornado hit an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois killing six people.
While the storm prompted calls to improve safety, News 4 Investigates uncovers how there haven’t been many changes.
On December 10, 2021, 26-year-old Austin McEwen clocked into work as a driver for Amazon, not knowing he’d never make it home.
“He was our world,” said Austin’s mom Alice McEwen. “He just lit up the room when he walked in.”
Austin’s parents, Alice and Randall McEwen say they want to remember Austin for who he was, and not the devastation of the day he died.
“It ripped my heart out basically it was the worst day of my life,” Alice McEwen said.
An EF-3 tornado hit the Amazon warehouse while dozens of employees were inside. The warehouse did not have a storm shelter. Instead, Amazon representatives say there was a designated “shelter in place area,” which was described as a windowless part of the warehouse.
Austin McEwen was one of six employees who took cover in a bathroom when the walls collapsed, killing them.
“There’s just no reason for it, they can afford a shelter,” Alice McEwen said.
The storm destroyed nearly half of the 1 million square foot warehouse. Now almost a year later, the warehouse is being rebuilt in the same spot. Construction plans did not include adding a storm shelter.
“It’s a slap in the face,” Alice McEwen said.
Weeks after the tornado, reporting by News 4 Investigates exposed how the warehouse was built using tilt-up construction, which has a history of catastrophic failures during powerful storms.
Survivors question safety after deadly Amazon warehouse tornado
Tilt-up construction involves concrete wall panels that rely on the roof to stand up. High winds can travel up the walls, causing the roof to rip off and the walls to collapse.
Amazon has seen the devastation that can happen in buildings with similar construction. In 2018 an EF-1 tornado hit an Amazon warehouse in Baltimore, killing two employees. During the storm, part of the roof came off and walls collapsed, crushing the workers. The Baltimore warehouse did not have a storm shelter.
Three years later, an EF-3 tornado hit the Edwardsville warehouse. The building is being rebuilt, but the design hasn’t changed, it’s still tilt-up construction.
“If another storm came through there like that it wouldn’t take nothing to have the same exact reaction, and not just to that building, almost every building out there is built the same way,” Alice McEwen said.
Ever since the tornado, Amazon representatives have defended the building.
“We know that the building was constructed consistent with code,” Amazon’s Director of Media Relations Kelly Nantel said, a statement she made three days after the tornado.
Since then, Amazon has not done another interview about the storm. In multiple statements over the past year Amazon maintained the building was up to code. In statements Amazon reiterated that it leased the warehouse after it was built.
As families like the McEwens are questioning why a storm shelter wasn’t added in the re-build, the answer comes down to the law. There is no federal, state, or local requirement for warehouses to have storm shelters. The way things currently stand adding a shelter comes down to a choice between the building owner and Amazon.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) was leading early calls for safety changes.
“I’ve spoken with legislators about whether or not we need to change code based upon the climate change that we’re seeing all around us,” Pritzker said during a press conference in December 2021, days after the tornado.
The statewide changes he called for haven’t happened. Illinois lawmakers considered a bill that would create a task force to look at warehouse safety. Under the proposal, the task force would have until January 1, 2025, meaning it would be years before any potential changes would be put in place.
“I think that they should have an urgency, so we don’t have to see anyone else lose their life,” Alice McEwen said.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST YEAR
1) OSHA CLEARS AMAZON OF WORKPLACE VIOLATIONS, BUT CALLS FOR SAFETY CHANGES
Immediately following the storm, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began an investigation. That investigation found Amazon did not break any workplace rules and Amazon was never cited or fined. However federal investigators believed Amazon needed to make safety changes and sent the company a hazard letter outlining areas for improvement.
“We are calling on Amazon to be an industry leader for workplace safety,” said OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor, Doug Parker, when the investigation findings were released in April 2022. “Six workers died in this event, it was a tragic event that in and of itself should be a wakeup call for employers.”
OSHA calls on Amazon to improve severe weather emergency procedures after warehouse collapse
OSHA’s hazard letter recommended the following areas for improvement: adding more emergency weather drills for all employees, creating site-specific emergency weather plans, and making audible warning devices readily accessible.
Employees told News 4 Investigates that they did not know where the designated “shelter in place area” was and that bullhorns used to give alerts were locked up. When the tornado hit Edwardsville, Amazon had an emergency plan that was for all of North America.
Since then, Amazon says it added more emergency weather drills for managers and is creating site-specific emergency plans.
2) AMAZON LOOKS TO HIRE CHIEF METEOROLOGIST
About a month after the tornado, News 4 Investigates was the first to report that Amazon posted a job opening for a “Chief Meteorologist,” a job that wasn’t mentioned before the storm.
Amazon hiring meteorologist month after deadly Illinois warehouse tornado
3) QUESTIONS RAISED ABOUT STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY OF WAREHOUSE
News 4 Investigates exposed how there have been questions about the structural integrity of the warehouse.
Memo questions if Edwardsville Amazon warehouse damaged in tornado was structurally sound
Dan Bruno, who is the Fire Marshall for the West County EMS and Fire Protection District, wrote a memo detailing what he observed when he was called to the warehouse the night of the storm. Bruno is also a licensed engineer in Missouri and claims he is a FEMA-trained Structures Specialist. According to Bruno’s memo he saw support columns that weren’t properly anchored.
Amazon said it’s doing an internal investigation into that, when News 4 Investigates asked for the results Amazon wouldn’t answer.
News 4 Investigates checked building inspection records for the warehouse, those show the building passed all inspections and no questions were ever raised about the support columns.
4) CONGRESSIONAL INQUIRY INTO WORKER SAFETY AT AMAZON
The tornado also sparked a congressional investigation into Amazon. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform launched an investigation in late March, as lawmakers said they are concerned Amazon is making employees work in dangerous conditions.
Amazon ‘obstructing’ House probe into warehouse collapse
Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush (D) is pushing for federal changes.
“Regardless of how these structures are built, that is oversight we have to work on too, but can we also pass a law that says your employee would rather be home, they would rather leave the facility, they should be able to do that,” Bush said.
Amazon claims they are working with lawmakers and have turned over more than 3,500 pages of requested records.
5) FAMILIES AND SURVIVORS SUE AMAZON
Amazon currently faces five lawsuits, filed by surviving employees and families who lost their loved ones. The McEwens filed the first lawsuit against Amazon in the wake of the tornado.
Amazon tornado victims speak nearly 5 months since the collapse
Each suit claims Amazon did not do enough to protect their employees.
Amazon declined News 4 Investigates’ requests for an interview or comment. Instead, Amazon said a spokesperson would be giving interviews on Friday, December 9. News 4 Investigates plans on talking to the spokesperson.
At the end of the day, the McEwens say they don’t want another family to know their pain.
“That would be justice for us if they could save other lives. We felt like our son shouldn’t have lost his life,” Randall McEwen said.
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