A screenshot of a text message sent by an Amazon driver shortly before a tornado struck a warehouse in December 2021 stated that "Amazon won't let us leave." While this text message is real, we do not have enough information to confirm what measures Amazon did or did not take vis-a-vis workers' safety during the emergency. An OSHA investigation into the deadly incident is ongoing.
Around 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2021, a tornado tore through Madison County, Illinois, before striking an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville where night workers were beginning their shift. The powerful tornado ripped off the building's roof, caused two of its 40-foot-high concrete walls to collapse, leaving six people dead in its wake.
As news of this tragic incident circulated on social media, so did an image supposedly showing a text message thread between Larry Virden, one of the worker's who died, and his girlfriend, Cherie Jones. In one message, Virden writes, "Amazon won't let us leave."
This appears to be a genuine image of a text message thread. While many people encountered this as a standalone image on social media, this image was first published in a local news broadcast from Fox 2 News after Jones provided it to the station. You can see the original news report below:
Jones spoke more about this text message in an interview with the New York Post:
“I got text messages from him. He always tells me when he is filling up the Amazon truck when he is getting ready to go back … I was like ‘OK, I love you.’ He’s like, ‘well Amazon won’t let me leave until after the storm blows over.'
“We heard the tornado didn’t touch down until 8:39 so he had 20 minutes to get home ... I messaged him and that was the last text message I got from him ... I told him where we live, it was only lightning at the time. After that, I got nothing from him.”
Jones, however, didn't fault Amazon for his death. Instead, she said she viewed it as a "what if" situation, saying: "what if they would have let him leave? He could have made it home."
It should also be noted that this text message was sent in the brief timespan (about 20 minutes) between the first tornado warning and the tornado striking the warehouse. As New York Times reporter Karen Weise noted, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance is for people to "seek shelter" after these warnings.
A spokesperson for Amazon told us that Amazon's leaders on the ground followed this OSHA guidance and worked to get people to take shelter after these warnings were issued.
The spokesperson said:
OSHA guidance clearly states to take shelter immediately when there’s a tornado warning. Our leaders on the ground followed their training and did just that, moving quickly to get people to take shelter immediately. That likely saved many lives from this storm. The site got tornado warnings between 8:06 and 8:16, and site leaders directed people on site to immediately take shelter. At 8:27, the tornado struck the building. Our team worked quickly to ensure employees and partners could get to the designated shelter in place area, and we want to thank them for everything they were able to do.
In the wake of the deadly tornado, Amazon faced some criticism for not having an adequate safety plan in place. The BBC reported:
Now, questions are being raised over whether adequate shelter was available, whether workers were advised to go there immediately, and whether the shifts should have gone ahead that evening at all, given the warnings of severe weather.
The Edwardsville site received tornado warnings between 20:06 and 20:16 local time (01:06 and 01:16 GMT) before the tornado struck the building at 20:27, Amazon said in a statement when contacted by the BBC, with events "happening incredibly fast".
The company said that the team worked "incredibly quickly" to ensure as many employees and partners could reach the "shelter in place" site.
OHSA has opened an investigation into the collapse. OSHA spokesman Scott Allen told ABC News that the investigation will be complete within six months.
“OSHA investigates all workplace fatalities, and we are supporting them,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
Amazon, which is donating $1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation to help the community rebuild after the tornado, also said in a statement:
"We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, IL. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado. We also want to thank all the first responders for their ongoing efforts on scene. We’re continuing to provide support to our employees and partners in the area.”