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Health, Science, Environment

Legislators, activists hold vigil for Amazon tornado victims, demand accountability

Derek Holtmann
Belleville News Democrat
Illinois state senator Christopher Belt speaks during a vigil for Edwardsville Amazon tornado victims. Family, friends and activists attended the vigil honoring the six victims and demanding accountability for the tornado victims.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat

EDWARDSVILLE — On Friday night, activists, lawmakers and families gathered to honor those who died while working at an Edwardsville Amazon warehouse that collapsed during a tornado last week. Speakers at the event also called for accountability from Amazon on worker and building safety in relation to the tragedy, and on general safety standards.

“A lot of people in this season are celebrating with pictures and light bulbs and presents and gifts and all of those things, but there is another side to Christmas,” said Rev. Darryl Gray, senior pastor of Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, during the event. “

This Christmas, there are families who will go to their dining room tables, their kitchen tables and there will be chairs that are empty. Those are families of the victims of the tornado here at the Amazon warehouse.”

Friday’s candlelight vigil was held at the DLI4 Amazon delivery center on 3077 Gateway Commerce Dr. , where six people died after a tornado struck the building around 8:30 a.m. Friday, December 10.

The victims have been identified as the following:

  • Austin J. McEwen, 26, of Edwardsville, IL
  • DeAndre S. Morrow 28, of St. Louis, MO
  • Clayton Lynn Cope, 29, of Alton, IL
  • Etheria S. Hebb, 34, of St. Louis, MO
  • Larry E. Virden, 46, of Collinsville, IL
  • Kevin D. Dickey, 62, of Carlyle, IL

Grassroots labor organizations such as the Illinois-based Warehouse Workers for Justice, Missouri Workers Center and United for Respect hosted the event. Following the tornado, Warehouse Workers for Justice released a statement demanding Illinois legislators investigate whether Amazon is ensuring “places of safety for workers and that no family has to worry whether or not their loved ones will make it home from work after an extreme weather event.”

Tommy Carden, a lead organizer for Warehouse Workers for Justice said the organization is adamant about lawmakers intervening to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.

“We know that national disasters like tornadoes are uncontrollable, but we know that Amazon’s preparedness and safety protocols are (controllable),” Carden said before Friday’s vigil. “Unfortunately, I think this disaster really calls into question Amazon’s record on worker health and safety and building standards. We really, really, want to make sure that this tragedy is not just the first but the last kind of thing that happens.”

Along with Rev. Gray, speakers at Friday’s event included Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), Sen. Chris Belt (D-Swansea) and Rev. Jon Stratton, of Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis. St. Louis R&B singer Lydia Caesar performed several selections during the vigil.

Rep. Bush said she’s in the process of writing a letter, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), to demand answers from Amazon.

“You have to explain to these families and loved ones why you were too busy making profits that you didn’t have time for the people. It’s the people who causes you to make the profits, and you care for them not,” Rep. Bush said.

Sen. Chris Belt was the last speaker at Friday night’s vigil. He wants the families of the victims to know that the community is standing in solidarity with them.

“This building can be replaced, but the lives that the tornado decimated and tore apart can never be,” the senator said. “The 155 mph winds, they’re gone now, but the hurt and the pain and the devastation that it caused in those six families’ lives can never, ever be replaced, so I’m coming here today and I just want you to know that I’m praying for you.”

The candlelight vigil was the second memorial dedicated to tornado victims on Friday. Earlier, local and public officials gathered at the Edwardsville Fire Station at Governor’s Square to honor the victims.

“We want the family and friends of these six individuals to know the city of Edwardsville mourns with them,” Edwardsville Mayor Art Rivasy said.

In the memory of the victims, a dogwood tree donated by former Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton was planted in the Governor’s Plaza on Thursday in front of the fire station. In the spring, city officials will dedicate a plaque next to the tree in remembrance of the tornado victims.

In the meantime, city agencies and private businesses across Edwardsville have displayed their flags at half mast. State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, read a letter on behalf of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who was unable to attend the city of Edwardsville event but had visited the city on Saturday and Monday.

Pritzker noted the victims were dedicated to their job of delivering packages during the busy holiday shopping season.

“But they were so much more,” his letter said. “They were someone’s mom, dad, brother, sister, friend, someone’s child. In this holiday season, there will be an empty chair around the dinner table.

“We stand with their loved ones during this pain and heartache,” the governor wrote. “Illinois stands with you, the nation stands with you.”

Carla and Lynn Cope, the parents of Clayton Cope, attended the ceremony. They hugged inside the Edwardsville Fire Station as local and state officials honored the victims.

“It was very touching,” Carla Cope said.

DeAsia Paige and Mike Koziatek are a reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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