Remembering those who died in the devastating Kentucky tornadoes

A judge. A school board member. A deputy directing inmates to safety. Toddlers. Infants.

A system of tornadoes claimed at least 75 lives when it tore through Western Kentucky over the weekend, leaving destruction, despair and grief in its wake. Friends, family and strangers alike are organizing relief funds and memorials to honor those lost.

Officials are sharing the names of those killed in the storms that began Friday night and stretched into Saturday morning. The full depth of the impact of the tornadoes is expected to come into focus as search and rescue efforts continued in different parts of the state.

Here's what we know about who died in the storms.

Jenny Bruce

65, of Dawson Springs, Kentucky

Jenny Bruce served the kids of Dawson Springs for four decades, even after her retirement.

Bruce, 65, sat on the school board for Dawson Springs Independent, a small school district with around 500 students in Hopkins County.

She was the finance director for many of her years in the district, a post from the Kentucky School Boards Association said. 

Sarah Kaegi, the finance officer for Murray Independent, said Bruce was “sweet, kind & always ready to help.”

Bruce "always talked about her husband, her children, her grandchildren & of course, her dog," Kaegi said.

"She always had a smile on her face. I would like her family to know her kindness and her leadership stretched far outside the boundaries of Dawson Springs and she will never be forgotten."

Citizens Bank of London, where Bruce’s step-daughter works, started a fund to help the Dawson Springs community in her honor.

“There are really no words to describe how much she meant to me,” Brandy Wiser, Bruce’s step-daughter, wrote on Facebook. “While not my mother by birth, she was truly like a mother to me for more than half of my life. Her heart was unlike any I've ever known. She would truly do anything for anyone at anytime without hesitation.”

– Olivia Krauth

More from the USA TODAY Network:

  • Path of 5-state tornado may go down as longest in US

  • Aerial views show deadly tornado devastation in Mayfield

  • Inside the frantic hours before candle factory was destroyed by tornado

Brian Crick

43, of Bremen, Kentucky

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. 

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.”

– Associated Press

Robert Daniel

47, of Mayfield, Kentucky

Graves County Deputy Jailer Robert Daniel was supervising inmate workers at a candle factory in Mayfield when the tornado struck. 

Graves County Jailer George Workman said Monday that Daniel had been focused on the prisoners in his care when he was killed as the twister wrecked the plant.

The seven inmates Daniel, 47, was overseeing at the factory Friday night were part of a brand-new work program and had just begun their jobs three days earlier.

After the storm hit, the inmates told Workman’s deputies that it was Daniel who literally had pushed them all to safety, guiding them through a doorway and against a wall in an interior part of the plant. Workman said the last inmate through the door told deputies that Daniel was behind him one moment, and suddenly he was gone.

“It takes a tremendous person to be able to lay their own life down for somebody else. But he did and he was doing it for the right reasons,” said Workman. 

All seven inmates in Daniel’s care survived, Workman said. Two suffered broken legs.

A cousin, Mark Saxton Sr., said Daniel was a native of the Mayfield area that was devastated by the storm.

“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.”

– Associated Press

Jha'lil Dunbar

3, of Mayfield, Kentucky

Jha'lil, who was excited to start preschool after his fourth birthday next month, loved Paw Patrol, playing with Nerf guns, doing flips and watching videos on his tablet, according to his aunt, Destiny Lashea Jackson.

He loved playing with his older siblings Damarion and Javion Noonan, Khaliyah Garnett and his one-year-old brother, Julius Dunbar. Jackson said her nephew was loving, friendly and was always excited to go to daycare. He loved his mom and dad, William Dunbar and Huda Alubahi. 

Jackson said every time he ate, he said it was "bussin', bussin'," which is a popular TikTok phrase that means something is delicious.

Alisha Weatherbee, Jha’lil's second cousin, said he and Julius were at home with Alubahi when the storm approached. The three couldn't get to the basement so they took shelter in the first-floor bathroom. Alubahi's brother was in the living room at the time.

When the tornado hit, it pushed the two-story home off the foundation and into the house next door. The second floor fell into the first.

Weatherbee said Alubahi’s brother escaped the wreckage and was able to locate Alubahi and her children because he could hear Julius' cries. She said it appeared the mother and two sons had been trapped by the second-floor bathroom when the house collapsed.

– Joe Gerth and Kala Kachmar

Jeff Eckert and Jennifer “Lulu” Nelson Eckert

70 and 69, of Dawson Springs, Kentucky

Jeff Eckert and his wife Jennifer “Lulu” Nelson Eckert died in Dawson Springs during the tornadoes over the weekend, according to the Hopkins County Coroner.

Jeff founded a book publishing company in Nokomis, Florida in 1988, according to his obituary. He enjoyed playing in several different bands from the 1970s to the 2000s.

“Lulu” was “Nonna” to her grandchildren, according to her obituary. She worked for an optometrist for 15 years and loved to travel and plan events or cookouts.

– Brittany Carloni

Matthew Ferguson 

50, of Bremen, Kentucky

Matthew Ferguson lost his life, his home and his two dogs, Leo and Chunk, in this weekend's tornadoes. Ferguson was kind, caring, reserved, down-to-earth and could connect with anyone, his cousin Jenny Prewitt and her husband Matthew Prewitt told The Courier Journal.

"He was the type of person who would do anything in the world for anybody," Matthew Prewitt said. "From the day I met him he always treated me just like a member of the family… It leaves a pretty big void."

Ferguson was passionate about horror movies. He was an amateur writer and director, visited film conventions and hosted Halloween parties. He was planning to remake a low-budget horror movie, "The Devil's Playground," that he filmed in their grandmother's home in 2010, Matthew said. 

Ferguson was a driver for Carhartt in Madisonville and worked on cars in his spare time. Jenny said since she lost her own father, she planned to ask her cousin to "carry on the tradition" and teach her son about cars, but she never got the chance. Ferguson loved his family dearly, she said.

Ferguson is the only boy of four, and the only one born in Kentucky. As a child, his sisters used to tease him about "sending him back" when they drove by the Greenville hospital he was born in. A few years ago at a relative's funeral, Matthew and their family laughed about a photo of Ferguson and his older sisters from the 1970s during his "Davy Jones phase," Matthew said. He had a good sense of humor.

-Kala Kachmar

Scottie and Meagan Flener

Both 34, of Central City, Kentucky

Scottie Lee Flener and his wife, Meagan Brea Wilson Flener, both 34, were killed in their Central City home during the tornado outbreak this weekend. They left behind three children, Landon, Alizabeth and Kenni Lynn Lafollette, as well as many siblings and family members, according to their obituaries.

Their three-year-old daughter, Thea Flener, died in 2020. Scottie was a self-employed roofer and Meagan a homemaker. 

"Scottie and Meagan Flener were two of the best people I've ever met," relative Sandi Flener wrote in a GoFundMe started to cover expenses. "They were my family and they will be forever missed."

– Kala Kachmar

Oaklynn Koon

Infant, of Dawson Springs, Kentucky

Douglas Koon, his wife, Jackie, and their three children huddled in his mother-in-law’s bathroom in Dawson Springs as the storms approached.

The couple put their infant daughter, Oaklynn, in a car seat to protect her, and she appeared to be OK 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.

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.

– Associated Press

Say Meh

42, of Bowling Green, Kentucky

Say Meh was one of 15 people who died from storm-related injuries in Warren County over the weekend. Meh, 42, died at the Medical Center at Bowling Green, according to the Warren County coroner. 

Meh, a refugee form Burma, was in the process of studying to become a U.S. citizen, according to a GoFundMe page to support her family. 

“Say Meh loved life and never met a stranger,” the GoFundMe page said. “Her tireless spirit and her charming smile will be missed.” 

– Brittany Carloni

Billy and Judy Miller

73 and 72, of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky

Gov. Andy Beshear said his uncle, Ed Miller, of Versailles, had lost two cousins in Muhlenberg County during the tornado. 

Miller, who visited Muhlenberg County with Beshear Tuesday, said his relatives who died were his first cousin, Billy Miller and his wife, Judy Miller. They were farmers who lived in the Millport community.

“They were very close to me, from the standpoint when I come back into the area, all my brothers and sisters take and spend a weekend with me when I come down here. Everybody comes in to have a meal together, to socialize, cousins come around, I go back to the church I was raised in and everybody’s there,” Ed Miller said.

Billy Miller, 73, and his wife, 72, had been married for 56 years, granddaughter Haley Burton told the Washington Post. She said they were found side-by-side on their property near Bremen, a town of about 300 people that was heavily damaged by the tornado.

– Debby Yetter

Jill Monroe

52, of Mayfield, Kentucky

In Jill Monroe’s final moments, she was working to keep others safe.

When it became clear that a tornado was headed for the Mayfield candle factory where she worked, coworkers told her family, she helped direct folks to an interior bathroom where they could take shelter.

During that same time, her sister Heather McGuffin says, she was texting family back in Oldham County to make sure they were keeping an eye on the storms moving through Kentucky.

“That’s who she was .. She would have run out in front of the tornado to help save somebody else,” her son, Chris Chism, said Tuesday afternoon.

Chism and his wife, Paige Tingle, were the ones who drove to Mayfield in the wake of the storm to try to find out what happened to his mother and “best friend.” They ultimately found out from the Graves County coroner that she didn’t survive the storm.

Monroe is one of eight candle factory employees who is confirmed to have died in Friday’s tornado, which decimated the town of Mayfield. The company that owns the factory, Mayfield Consumer Products, has said the other 102 people who were in the factory that night have been found alive, but state officials have not confirmed that information.

Monroe had only been at the facility for three or four months, her family said. She moved to Mayfield for a “fresh start,” according to Chism, and a chance to connect with her birth family’s community – she was adopted at a young age and found her biological family a few years ago.

While in Mayfield, Chism and Tingle were able to collect some of the Christmas presents she had already bought for her family. They’ll be under the tree Christmas morning, especially the ones marked “from Mimi” for the couple’s three children.

“That’s what she’d want,” Chism said. “Christmas was all about watching her babies open their presents.”

The biggest holiday surprise Monroe had planned for her family won’t happen, though.

She was, her coworkers told Chism, to move back to Oldham County in time for Christmas Eve.

Mary Ramsey

Chase Oglesby

Five months, of Bremen, Kentucky

Andrew and Charity Oglesby lost everything when a tornado hit Bremen — most importantly, their only child, 5-month-old Chase. 

“No person should ever go through the pain of this much loss in one night,” a GoFundMe organized by Zach Negulis, Andrew sister’s fiance.

Andrew and Charity are both in the hospital from injuries suffered during the storm, the GoFundMe says.

“They are two of the most giving and loving people on this earth and would do anything for anyone,” Negulis wrote. “They and all of us are completely broken by this night as they lost the most important thing in this world to them.”

– Olivia Krauth

Cory Scott

27, of Bowling Green, Kentucky

Cory Scott loved basketball and woodworking. He enjoyed shooting guns, listening to loud music and working on trucks. 

The 27-year-old from Bowling Green died Saturday, according to a Facebook obituary. Scott was one of 15 people who died from storm-related deaths in Warren County as of Monday. 

Scott worked as a contractor for Bluegrass Craftsmen in Rockfield, Kentucky.

Family and friends meant everything to Scott, according to a Facebook obituary. A verified GoFundMe page has been set up to support Scott's family. 

“He was the life of the party and loved getting his friends together more than anything,” the obituary said.

– Brittany Carloni

Diane Varney

62, of Moorman, Kentucky

Diane Varney, known to many as Ms. Di, died in her daughter's home in Moorman over the weekend. She was a team leader and 15-year-veteran at the Burger King in Central City, where she was loved by managers, employees and customers alike, her son Ricky Beckman told The Courier Journal.

"My mom was adored by everybody that knew her," he said. "I didn't realize how much the community loved her until the funeral yesterday."

Beckman said his mother had a heart of gold and though she didn't have much, she'd give her last penny or the shirt off her back to help someone in need. Varney moved her two children, Beckman and Jenny Shemwell, to Muhlenberg County from Chicago in 1998 to get them away from the city. She lived for her grandchildren, Ava, 11, Asher, 8, and four-year-old Abram Shemwell, Beckman said.

"Her hobbies were being a couch potato — as long as she had her Sonomas (cigarettes), Monster drinks and her grandbabies," he said.

Beckman, who has been in recovery since March, said he's going to stay sober to honor his mother. 

"She just wanted me to do right," he said. "Just because something bad happens doesn't mean you have to go back to that lifestyle. She wouldn't want me to go back to the way I was." 

Varney's family has set up a GoFundMe page to pay for her funeral expenses.

– Kala Kachmar

Do you know someone who died in the tornadoes in Kentucky? Please reach out to reporters Olivia Krauth and Kala Kachmar at [email protected] and [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky tornado victims: Obituaries of people who died

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