EDWARDSVILLE — Deon January took a few moments to compose herself behind the lectern at the Mount Joy Baptist Church in Edwardsville. Her husband, Jerrett January, put his hand on her shoulder. Then, in a quiet voice, she spoke.
“Amazon was responsible for my son’s safety, and they failed him and others,” January said. “It’s not OK. They need to be held responsible.”
Her son DeAndre Morrow, 28, was one of six people killed Dec. 10 after a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse they worked at in Edwardsville. Three survivors of the tornado, plus local political leaders, joined January on Tuesday at a news conference, pressing Amazon to put employees’ safety first and to rebuild the destroyed warehouse to higher standards. January and the survivors are suing Amazon over what they said was a preventable tragedy.
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel did not comment on Tuesday, referring to the company’s previous statement, which said the online retailer is “constantly looking to innovate and improve our safety measures.”
During the hourlong news conference, January described her son as compassionate and driven, a man who wanted to own laundromats and car washes and help children and the homeless.
Morrow worked as a contract driver there for two months. January said her son was supposed to be off the day the tornado struck but was asked to work 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. He took it, January said, to earn more money during the holiday season and to repay her for a car that she had recently bought for him. He was still at the warehouse when the tornado hit around 8:27 p.m.
“It hurts,” January said. “It is still day by day.”
Survivors Jada Williams, Jamarco Hickman and Deontae Yancey, who also were contract drivers, described more of the chaos that night as well as the lingering fear, depression and grief they still feel months later.
Yancey recalled how customers questioned why he was still out delivering packages as the weather changed. He said he was asked to make more stops but refused and returned to the warehouse. When the tornado approached, he said he was directed to a small bathroom on the north side of the building.
“I thought I was going to die,” Yancey said. “There was no safe barrier.”
Hickman’s van often had 300 packages during the holiday season, and he said that drivers were offered $25 Amazon gift cards as incentives to deliver more. He finished up deliveries and returned to the warehouse at 8:15 p.m.
“I cannot shake off hearing those walls collapsing. The sounds, the loud roar of the tornado when it slammed into our facility,” Hickman said. “I was terrified.”
Hickman said he’s in counseling now and is struggling financially and mentally. He lost his car that night and said he was later fired for not having a way to get to work.
Amazon donated $1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation, which said it would use the funds for past and future disaster victims as well as efforts toward disaster preparedness in Madison County.
Hickman and Yancey said they both applied and were denied grants from the nonprofit.
Executive Director Pam Farrar said the nonprofit was still reviewing Hickman’s application and that it never received Yancey’s application. She encouraged him and others to reach out to the foundation to ensure “something didn’t get misdirected.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing January and the survivors in their lawsuits against the family, said Tuesday that they want the warehouse to be built with stricter regulations, including a tornado shelter.
“We have to speak truth to power. Amazon is one of the most powerful entities in the world,” Crump said. “And these families, these victims, with the community here in Edwardsville, (are) standing up against this goliath.”
The city of Edwardsville, in an email to the Post-Dispatch, said the property owner, San Diego-based Realty Income Corp., submitted structural plans to rebuild the warehouse. Those are being reviewed. The plans, the city said, do not include a tornado shelter.