This summer, a small team of GE volunteers from GE Aerospace’s plant in Madisonville, Kentucky, came together to renovate the playground at the local Salvation Army Homeless Shelter. They painted the existing swing sets and monkey bars, spread rubber mulch in the play areas and installed a new teeter totter, picnic benches and a disc golf net. With just two days of sweat equity, the volunteers’ work paid immediate dividends for the kids who attend day camps and weekly programs at the shelter, as well as the homeless families the Salvation Army takes in. The shelter has 30 beds, which is usually enough to serve the community. Twelve months ago, however, they had to turn people away. That was not normal. But then nothing about the night of December 10, 2021, was normal for this rural region of the commonwealth.
That evening a series of tornadoes tore across three states, killing dozens of people in Kentucky and destroying entire towns. Many employees who work at the plant, where the company produces high pressure turbine blades and nozzles for military and commercial aircraft, were shaken by the storm. But eight GE employees share this in common: When they woke up the morning of December 11, none of them did so in their own homes.
“Just imagine working your whole life for something and then, in a matter of a few seconds, it’s gone,” says Jason Ellis, a toolmaker at the plant. “You only have the clothes that are on your back. That’s all you have.”
It seems unreal even now. As a former infantryman in the 101st Airborne, Sergio Chavez, a furnace operator at the plant, had seen the after effects of war. But even those memories weren’t enough to prepare him for what he and his family found when they emerged from what little remained of their home near the town of Dawson Springs that night.
Chavez described the hours before the storm as “ominous.” His wife, Paula, had cleared their closets and packed their Cadillac in case they needed to flee. Not one for taking a lot of pictures, Chavez pulled out his phone and snapped shots of the house and all the surrounding buildings to document his property. His house didn’t have a basement, but both of his daughters came over that evening with their families because they thought it would be safer than their own homes.
As night came on and the storm system rolled through Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, Chavez retained some hope that Madisonville and the surrounding area would come through unscathed. He tried to maintain a semblance of normality: He took a nap. He showered. He even thought about heading into the plant, where he worked the third shift. But just as he was getting ready to brush his teeth, Paula told him he didn’t have time — and it was not a matter of minutes, but seconds.
He sped downstairs and stepped out on the porch, where he could see the storm moving towards the house. Chavez, his wife and their two sons-in-law positioned themselves in a small closet while his daughters and four grandchildren hunkered down in a bathroom.
It only lasted about 30 seconds, but when it was over, the house had collapsed around them. Chavez suffered bruised ribs and one of his daughter’s broke her nose. But they were all alive.
After crawling from the rubble and helping his kids and grandkids get out, his thoughts turned to his dogs. He had six German shepherds, which had been in their small “cottage” when the tornado hit. He found four of them alive, though one would die of wounds sustained later. That was perhaps the hardest blow.
The Chavez’s weren’t the only people with ties to the plant whose lives were turned upside down that night. Jimmy Miller, who serves as the deputy coroner for Hopkins County, had to be prodded by his wife Sherry to take shelter in his mother-in-law’s basement. When they came up after the storm passed, very little of their neighborhood was still standing.
Whatever it is in Miller’s training outside of his job as a flex two operator on turbine blades for military jets at GE, it kicked in. Maybe it was because he’d been through this before. In 2015, a house fire had taken everything he owned. Now, here he was again, searching for pieces of his life.
Miller helped rescue neighbors stuck inside what was left of their homes. He rescued their pets, too. And after making sure his wife, her mother and the family dogs were settled, he helped collect the bodies of those the tornado had not spared. There were 12 dead to start with. Another three people passed away from complications in the hours after the storm. Among the dead was a two-month-old baby.
It’s what a deputy coroner does, but it was still gut-wrenching. “People that I’ve known,” Miller said later. “It kind of hits home whenever you see people that you knew. You don’t recognize them. It just makes you think about the power of Mother Nature and what it can do.”
In truth, there was little time to think. As with Chavez and Miller, Jason Ellis’s family forced him to take shelter in the basement. “I was calm in the moment,” he says. “One of my youngest grandsons is a year old. You have to stay calm for them. And you have to stay calm for your wife. And then the damn reality sets in once you come out of the basement.”
The reality Ellis had known before was a sprawling, refurbished farmhouse where he and his wife had recently added a large living room and den, new bedrooms and a garage. They had been looking forward to spending their second Christmas in the house.
“I lost everything,” Ellis says. “We salvaged very few things. Like your clothes, even the clothes that were in your closet, when they go through a tornado, they’re either ripped or stained with paint or mud [after laying] in the ground for several days.”
As the news spread of the 200-mile swath of destruction the storms carved through Kentucky, GE volunteers jumped into action. Within a day, they had mobilized to help clean up debris and distribute tarps, extension cords, gas cans, portable generators and propane heaters amongst the victims. A temporary food pantry was set up and a flat-bed truck delivered a large shipment of fresh bottled water to the community. To help with the salvage operations, GE provided construction-grade totes so that people could pack up whatever belongings remained.
“GE were probably the first responders — and I call them responders because of the immediate needs they provided,” says Chavez, calling one afternoon from the RV parked near the lot where his new house would soon be built. “Then of course the community came together and started putting in distribution centers. [Eventually] everything came into place, but GE were the first ones to come up, whether it be [with] food, supplies, whatever you need.”
That included co-workers replacing the Christmas gifts the Chavez’s had bought for their grandkids. Jennifer Hatcher, senior manager for digital operations at the Madisonville plant, helped to organize the company’s local response, including delivering care packages of water, clothes and food, arranging temporary housing for employees and their families in local hotels, and even creating an Amazon wish list so that GE employees could help their colleagues replace some desperately needed items. Hatcher herself had family members who lost their apartment in Dawson Springs.
“We have 19 grandchildren,” Paula Chavez says. Hatcher and other co-workers repurchased all the Christmas gifts they’d lost “and provided us with a Christmas tree so that we could have Christmas with the grand babies.”
“I have always referred to GE Aerospace Madisonville as a community of our own,” Hatcher says. “One where the people look out for each other and step up when a need arises, no matter the call. It broke my heart to know what they would face over the coming days, but I was also very proud to work for a company with people that took an immediate call to action. This was a time to witness an outpouring of humility and generosity.”
Julie and Tim Creekmur, both of whom work at the plant in Madisonville, had been remodeling their home for the last eight years only to see it “totally destroyed in less than 30 seconds.” (Tim’s father’s house was so damaged that “fragments of neighboring structures had riddled the inside of his home like porcupine needles,” he said.) Still, they and their extended family came through unharmed, and the Creekmur’s were thankful for the support they had received from GE Aerospace. “It has been overwhelming,” they wrote in a letter to Hatcher. “Our colleagues have been outstanding. They provided my immediate family and my dad, who is at the age of 75, with a roof over our heads, clothes on our back, food on the table.”
Though this happened a year ago, Hatcher says that “we must not forget that the survivors are still dealing with the impact one day at a time and still need our help.”
Like others, Jason Ellis is ready to start over, but he knows he needs to be patient.
“Right now, it’s just a waiting game,” he says. “You’re waiting on contractors to get prices for you, quotes on everything, to see what my house is gonna cost.
“It’s not going to be that big of a house,” he adds. “[But] it’s gonna have a bigger basement — with a safe room this time.”