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'Heartbreaking before the holidays' | Indiana Task Force 1 sifts through rubble at Kentucky candle factory

INTF1 spent 12 hours on Sunday focusing on systematically removing layers of the collapsed building.

MAYFIELD, Ky. — Forty-five members of the Indiana Task Force 1 traveled to Mayfield, Kentucky Sunday to help with relief efforts in one of the areas hit the hardest by a series of devastating tornadoes Friday night into Saturday morning.

The team is helping with search and rescue operations after the overnight tornadoes tore through the central U.S. The death toll stands at 36 across five states, but officials fear more than 100 may have actually died. 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the loss is tremendous. 

"It may end up being the largest loss of life in any tornado event in a single location in the state's history," said Beshear.

Mayfield, Kentucky was hit the hardest. Neighbors there spent the day sifting through debris and searching for survivors.

The tornado outbreak not only devastated the state, but one tornado also destroyed a candle factory in Mayfield. There were 110 people working at the factory overnight Friday when the storm hit. Forty of them were rescued. 

RELATED: Tornado survivor: 'Not knowing is worse than knowing'

When INTF1 arrived in Mayfield at around 11:45 p.m., they went to bed in preparation for an early morning Sunday when they would begin their efforts searching through the rubble for the many unaccounted-for people who were working at the candle factory when the tornado hit.

Credit: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
In this aerial photo, a collapsed factory and surrounding areas are seen in Mayfield, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. Tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across multiple states Friday, killing several people overnight.

"Hopefully, we will have not a lot of people who have suffered and perished through this event and will be recovered alive and be reunited with their families," said Tom Neal, the program manager for Indiana Task Force 1.

INTF1 spent 12 hours on Sunday focusing on systematically removing layers of the collapsed building. The team was relieved from work at 7 p.m. when members of two other departments took over the night shift. 

On Monday, the task force will use a crane to remove large sections of the collapsed roof.

A mission like this means all hands are on deck. INTF1 brought with them everything they needed to help look for survivors including special search and rescue dogs who are trained in detecting survivors and human remains. 

"Having the dogs makes our jobs easier. They tell us where to dig if there is a survivor. They can work quickly enough that the dogs can clear a much bigger area than humans could if we were searching on our own," said Ryan Cusack, a canine search specialist with INTF1.

Cusack said even though they train year-round they're never ready for this.

"It's heartbreaking right before the holidays. There are families that have lost everything. Some that unfortunately may have lost family members. That puts a strain on everyone. Including a lot of our team members," said Cusack.

A spokeswoman for the task force said despite the challenges they face, the team was in good spirits. Cusack explained that it was the hope for survivors and being able to reunite families that helps get them through. 

"Helping to make families whole and reunite them helps make the hard days easier," said Cusack. "It's definitely not an easy job, it wears on you emotionally and physically. Knowing the end result is families reunited and their day improves, that what makes this easier to do."

RELATED: Crews continue search for missing after central US tornadoes

On Saturday, the team didn't have a return date yet. They planned to stay as long as they're needed.

On Tuesday, Dec. 14, INTF1 shared video of them removing heavy debris from the candle factory.

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