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Tornado victims include infant, 8-year-old girl, veteran, longtime florist, judge

Dozens of deaths have been confirmed in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee, and those numbers are expected to rise, officials said.
In this Dec. 10 photo provided by Sandra Hooker, from left, Avalinn Rackley, 7, Alanna Rackley, 3, and Annistyn Rackley, 9, pose for a picture in a bathroom in their home near Caruthersville, Missouri. Annistyn, a third-grader who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, was among dozens of people who died because of the severe storm on Friday. A tornado hit her home and splintered it less than a week after the family had moved in, and, according to the relative who received the photo of the girl in the bathtub, it carried family members dozens of yards before dropping them in a muddy field.
In this Dec. 10 photo provided by Sandra Hooker, from left, Avalinn Rackley, 7, Alanna Rackley, 3, and Annistyn Rackley, 9, pose for a picture in a bathroom in their home near Caruthersville, Missouri. Annistyn, a third-grader who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, was among dozens of people who died because of the severe storm on Friday. A tornado hit her home and splintered it less than a week after the family had moved in, and, according to the relative who received the photo of the girl in the bathtub, it carried family members dozens of yards before dropping them in a muddy field. [ MEGHAN RACKLEY | AP ]
Published Dec. 14, 2021
Updated Dec. 14, 2021

A 2-month-old whose family tried to protect her by putting her in a car seat. A 94-year-old Korean War veteran from Arkansas. A longtime florist in Tennessee who recently “started on her new adventure” as an airport security worker. An Amazon warehouse worker in Illinois. A Kentucky judge known for his common sense.

These were among the dozens of people killed during Friday night’s tornadoes that ripped through five states in the Midwest and South. There were dozens of confirmed deaths in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee, but those numbers were expected to rise. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday at least 74 had died in his state alone.

Here are some of the people who perished during the tornadoes.

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Douglas Koon, his wife, Jackie, and their three children huddled in his mother-in-law’s bathroom in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, as the storms approached. The tornado hit the house directly, flinging the family around and tossing a bathtub in the air that was shielding two of his sons. The couple put their infant daughter, Oaklynn, in a car seat to protect her, and she appeared to be OK on Saturday.

“It’s the most traumatic thing I’ve been through, I felt like I was helpless in protecting my kids,” Douglas Koon told MSNBC in an interview on Saturday. But by Sunday, the baby was having seizures, and doctors noticed a brain bleed after she was taken to the hospital. They believed she had a stroke, Koon said in a Facebook post.

“It’s not looking good at this point,” he wrote. “The machines are keeping her alive.”

Early Monday morning, the family posted that the infant had died.

In a text message to The Associated Press on Monday, Koon said he was struggling “to process everything that I’m going through.”

A family member has set up a GoFundMe account for Koon’s family and his mother-in-law, Sheila Rose, who lost her home.

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Lisa Taylor had worked 14 years as a florist at the same family-owned shop in Memphis, Tennessee, when she left in October to start a new career at the airport with the Transportation Security Administration. Co-workers at Rachel’s Flowers congratulated her with balloons on a sign that read, “Good Luck, Lisa.”

Taylor, 54, stayed in touch with her friends at the flower shop, making plans to return part-time over the holidays to make some extra money. Then the phone rang Saturday, just as the power came back on at the shop after violent storms passed through overnight. Taylor’s longtime boyfriend was calling with tragic news. A large tree had fallen through her roof overnight, killing Taylor as she slept in bed.

Related: Can Florida experience deadly tornado outbreaks like the cluster that hit the Midwest, South?

“She had just gotten started on her new adventure and she’s just been taken,” said Angie Morton, who worked as a florist alongside Taylor for several years.

A single mother of two children now in their 20s, Taylor took her new government job for higher wages and the extra stability that came with health insurance and other benefits, friends said.

But she had a creative spark that made her a natural when it came to working with flowers, Morton said, whether she was helping grieving families design funeral arrangements or using bits and pieces of broken, castoff jewelry to add some custom sparkle to high school girls’ prom corsages.

In this Oct. 12, 2019, photo provided by Angie Morton, Lisa Taylor poses with a flower arrangement taken at Rachel’s Flowers in Memphis, Tenn. An emergency management official in Shelby County, Tenn., said Taylor was found dead Saturday, after a tree uprooted in a violent storm fell through the roof of her Memphis home, landing on Taylor as she slept. Co-workers said she recently left her job as a florist of 14 years for a government job at the Memphis airport.
In this Oct. 12, 2019, photo provided by Angie Morton, Lisa Taylor poses with a flower arrangement taken at Rachel’s Flowers in Memphis, Tenn. An emergency management official in Shelby County, Tenn., said Taylor was found dead Saturday, after a tree uprooted in a violent storm fell through the roof of her Memphis home, landing on Taylor as she slept. Co-workers said she recently left her job as a florist of 14 years for a government job at the Memphis airport. [ ANGIE MORTON | AP ]

“She really liked to bling everything up,” Morton said. “She would take stuff other people would throw in the trash and make beautiful things out of it. If she found an earring in a store that didn’t have a matching pair, she would think, ‘I know there’s somebody who that would be perfect for her corsage.’”

Charles Newell, deputy emergency management administrator for Shelby County, Tennessee, said she was the only known storm death in the county that includes Memphis.

Rachel Greer, the flower shop’s owner, was helping plan floral arrangements for Taylor’s funeral. She said Taylor’s daughter had requested “a sea of purple flowers” such as lavender roses and chrysanthemums to match her mother’s favorite color.

Meanwhile customers were dropping by the shop to offer condolences and leaving notes. One of them read: “Lisa was a light in a dark world.”

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Annistyn Rackley was an outgoing and energetic southeast Missouri 9-year-old who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, according to Sandra Hooker, the girl’s grandaunt.

In this undated photo provided by Sandra Hooker, Annistyn Rackley, 9, poses for a picture while attending a cheerleading competition in Arizona. Rackley, who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, was among dozens of people who died because of a severe storm, Friday. A tornado hit her home and splintered it less than a week after the family had moved in, according to a relative.
In this undated photo provided by Sandra Hooker, Annistyn Rackley, 9, poses for a picture while attending a cheerleading competition in Arizona. Rackley, who loved swimming, dancing and cheerleading, was among dozens of people who died because of a severe storm, Friday. A tornado hit her home and splintered it less than a week after the family had moved in, according to a relative. [ MEGHAN RACKLEY | AP ]

The two became close over the past four years as Hooker offered the girl support during doctor’s visits and blood draws required by a rare liver condition that still didn’t keep Annistyn from activities.

Annistyn, her parents and her two younger sisters, took shelter Friday night in a windowless bathroom in their new home west of Caruthersville, Missouri. To prove they’d gotten to the family’s “safe space,” the girls’ mom texted Hooker a photo of the three in and next to the bathtub — all of them smiling, 9-year-old Annistyn holding her favorite doll.

Fifteen minutes later, Sandra Hooker said, a tornado splintered the home, carrying the family members dozens of yards through the air into a field where first responders found them in mud. Annistyn died, and the others were injured. The mother, Meghan Rackley, and their middle daughter, 7-year-old Avalinn, remained hospitalized Monday.

Hooker called Annistyn a “special angel” and said the girl delighted in donning outfits and makeup for cheer competitions and with learning new dances from TikTok. She did cartwheels and splits in front of Hooker.

“I would just gasp because she could do the splits all the time, and she would just laugh,” Hooker said. “She loved dancing.”

Hooker teaches gifted students at the same elementary school where Meghan Rackley teaches kindergarten in Caruthersville, which is nestled next to the Mississippi River in what’s known as Missouri’s Bootheel region.

Hooker said Annistyn’s parents learned when she was 2 months old that she had a rare liver disorder in which bile ducts don’t develop properly, sometimes making it hard to fight off illness.

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Golden Wes Hembrey, 94, died when a tornado destroyed the nursing home in which he lived in Monette, Arkansas.

His nephew, Mike Hembrey, said the Korean War veteran and retired farmer had been in the nursing home since 2016 because of Alzheimer’s disease. But he remembered his uncle as engaged with his extended family throughout their younger years.

“He was outgoing,” his nephew said. “He’d be out in the yard playing with us. But don’t make him mad. When he was mad, he was mad.”

This undated photo provided by Kristie Carmichael and taken by Jimmie Hembrey shows Golden Wes Hembrey. Golden Wes Hembrey, 94, died when a tornado destroyed the nursing home in which he lived in Monette, Arkansas.
This undated photo provided by Kristie Carmichael and taken by Jimmie Hembrey shows Golden Wes Hembrey. Golden Wes Hembrey, 94, died when a tornado destroyed the nursing home in which he lived in Monette, Arkansas. [ JIMMIE HEMBREY | AP ]

“He liked cutting up, telling jokes,” said niece Kristie Carmichael.

The Hembreys said Jimmie Hembrey had visited his brother the day before the tornado and found him to be in good health.

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Graves County Deputy Robert Daniel was supervising inmate workers at a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, when the tornado struck. His boss said Monday that Daniel had been focused on the prisoners in his care when he was killed as the twister wrecked the plant.

Daniel “gave his precious life while physically ensuring that his 7 inmates were moved into a safe location, from which they all survived,” Graves County Jailer George Workman said in a post on the county jail’s Facebook page. “He was just unable to get there himself in time.”

A cousin, Mark Saxton Sr., said Daniel was a native of the Mayfield area that was devastated by the storm. He said Daniel had worked for several years as a deputy, mostly overseeing inmates assigned to a work release program.

“He loved his community,” Saxton said. “He was a great family man. Everybody who met him just loved him. He’s the type of person you want to be associated with.”

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Brian Crick, a judge for two western Kentucky counties, was known for his sound judgment when it came to solving problems, a fellow judge said.

Crick, 43, was a district judge for Muhlenberg and McLean counties who handled criminal misdemeanor cases, traffic court and juvenile cases, said Circuit Judge Brian W. Wiggins. Wiggins said he has known his fellow judge since 2005, when Crick was a public defender. He later was in private practice before taking the bench in 2011.

This undated photo provided by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts on Sunday shows District Judge Brian Crick.
This undated photo provided by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts on Sunday shows District Judge Brian Crick. [ AP ]

Many of the defendants who came before him weren’t represented by attorneys, and Crick “was very good about seeing to it that their rights were protected,” Wiggins said. “He had a very common sense approach. He was very level-headed about how to handle cases and how to talk to people.”

Wiggins was killed when the storm hit his family’s home in Muhlenberg County. He is survived by a wife and three children, all of whom made it through the storm without major injuries, Wiggins said. “He was just a consummate family man ... very engaged with his children and his wife. They were number one to him.”

“We are especially heartbroken to get the news,” Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton said in a statement. “This is a shocking loss to his family, his community and the court system and his family is in our prayers.”

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Two of June Pennington’s children said the Manila, Arkansas, resident was devoted to her four children and nine grandchildren and had a particular soft spot for animals.

Pennington, 52, was working as an assistant manager at a Dollar General store in nearby Leachville, Arkansas, when it was hit.

“She didn’t love anything as much in life as her kids and grandkids,” said Christie Pennington. “She was truly selfless and loved whole-heartedly.”

David Benefield, the oldest of June Pennington’s four children, said he was born when his mother was only 14.

“She was a kid raising a kid. We were just like best friends,” he said. “It’s crazy how close you become.”

Her children remember her as someone who “would do anything that we asked her to do,” Benefield said. Even after her children were grown, they said June Pennington wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

Christie Pennington said her mother adopted dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, turtles and even a ferret.

“If there was ever an animal in need of a home, we took it in,” she said.

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Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, had been working at Amazon for more than a year before the storm killed him at a company facility in southwestern Illinois.

Five other workers also died at the facility located outside St. Louis.

Cope, who lived in nearby Alton, Illinois, had joined the Navy after graduating high school and was an avid outdoorsman who also liked to ride motorcycles and play video games. He had a special place in his heart for his dog, Draco, said his younger sister, Rachel Cope.

“He would go out of his way for anyone,” Cope said in a written message.

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Ollie Borgmann, 84, was a sweet and “typical grandmother” who had lived in her home in Defiance, Missouri, for decades.

A tornado blew through the home she shared with her 84-year-old husband, Vernon, on Friday night, blowing the house off its foundation, as well as that of a neighbor’s house in the town located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of St. Louis.

Her son, Mark Borgmann, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his brother, Keith, was on the phone with their father during the powerful storm when the line went dead. The next thing Vernon Borgmann remembers is waking up in a nearby field surrounded by debris. He suffered scratches and bruises but will be OK, said Mark Borgmann.

When Ollie Borgmann was found by rescuers, she was awake. She died later at a hospital.

By DYLAN LOVAN and RUSS BYNUM, Associated Press. Lovan reported from Louisville, Kentucky. Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee; Terry Wallace in Dallas; Sophie Tareen in Chicago; Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this article.