Twelve people – including eight children, two of whom were infants – living on one Kentucky street were killed when a tornado ravaged through their Bowling Green neighborhood on Friday night.
The victims include two large families, the Browns and the Besics, all of whom lived on Moss Creek Avenue.
All four Brown children and their parents were found dead after the storm left the tidy homes on the cul-de-sac reduced to mounds of lumber and rubble, with residents’ belongings spewed across the street.
Victoria Smith, the 64-year-old Brown family matriarch, was also found dead in a field near the neighborhood.
Smith’s daughter, Rachael Brown, 36; Brown’s husband Steven, 35, and the couple’s youngest, 4-year-old Nyles Brown, were found together near their family home, relative Cierra Bryant told WKYT.
The couple’s daughter Nariah Brown, 16, was found in a creek and their son Nolynn Brown, 10, on a neighbor’s property. On Thursday, police said they found the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Nyssa Brown, about a quarter mile southeast of the family home.
‘There was nothing they could’ve held onto, nothing they could’ve tried to shelter themselves, everything is gone,’ Bryant said.
Rachael Brown, 36, and Steven Brown, 35, are pictured with three of their kids (from left: Nolynn, Rachel, Nyssa, Nariah and Steen). Rachel and Steven were found dead after a tornado ripped through their Bowling Green, Kentucky neighborhood. Their daughter Nariah, 16, and sons Nolynn, 10, and Nyles, 4, were also killed
Officials confirmed Nyssa’s (pictured) death Thursday afternoon after she had been was missing since Saturday
Next door, the storm took the life of Alisa Besic, a mother of three, and two of her children, Elma Besic, 7, and Alma Besic, an infant. They were found behind their home with Alisa clutching the baby in her arms.
Alisa’s sister-in-law, Selveta Besic, told the Courier Journal the mother leaves behind a 2-year-old boy.
The large Besic family also lost Selmir Besic, 6, and Samantha Besic, who was not even one year old.
Each of the unnamed twin brothers, one of whom is married to Alisa, lost two children.
Selveta noted that her brothers and their younger 25-year-old sister, who is likely paralyzed, are among four Besic family members being treated for life-threatening injuries at hospitals in Nashville, Tennessee.
‘We were just shocked,’ Selveta said. ‘One minute you’re alive and just playing with them and then the next 15 minutes they are gone.’
Kentucky was hardest-hit by the storms that rolled through the Midwest last weekend and left at least 88 people dead across five states. Seventy-four were killed in Kentucky; six in Illinois; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas; and two in Missouri.
The Kentuckians killed range in age from a 2-month-old to a 98-year-old and at least 12 of the victims are children. Officials say more than 100 people remain missing.
President Joe Biden visited the twister-torn state Wednesday to survey the destruction, promising residents: ‘We’re not going to leave I promise you. The federal government is going to be here until this gets rebuilt.’
Biden approved federal disaster declarations for Kentucky and the neighboring states of Tennessee and Illinois, offering residents and local officials increased federal aid.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent search-and-rescue and emergency response teams to the state, along with teams to help survivors register for assistance. Nearly 450 National Guard members were mobilized to Kentucky and 95 of them are searching for those presumed dead.
‘I have not seen this much damage from a tornado,’ Biden added, telling local officials, ‘Don’t hesitate to ask for anything.’
Steven Brown is pictured with Victoria Smith, the 64-year-old matriarch of the Brown family. Victoria was also killed in the storm. Her body was found in a field near the neighborhood
All four of the Brown children were killed in the storm (Pictured from left: Nyssa, Nariah, Nolynn, and Nyles Brown)
The storm left a trail of wreckage in its wake that stretched from Arkansas to Illinois
Cierra Bryant said the Brown family’s home, where seven people lived, is now unrecognizable after being completely destroyed by the twister.
‘My mother-in-law’s truck was sitting in their living room. Where the living room would’ve been,’ she told WKYT.
Her husband has been receiving calls, one-by-one, confirming his loved ones were victims of the EF-3 tornado that struck the Bowling Green community.
Bryant said she checked in with her sister-in-law, Rachael Brown, on Facebook after the tornado blew through the town but never got a reply.
‘I got on Facebook and her messenger said online,’ Bryant explained. ‘I messaged her again and said, ‘hey sis, are you ok?’ and still nothing back. And then she went offline.’
At first she didn’t think much of the lack of response given much of Bowling Green was without power, however, on Saturday morning she saw drone video footage of the family’s home and knew to expect the worst.
‘On the drone video, the drone stops right over their house and pauses. That was terrible,’ Bryant said.
Victoria Smith (right) is pictured with Rachael and Steven Brown’s children (From left: Nolynn, Nariah, Nyssa and Nyles)
Cierra Bryant is pictured with her nephew, Nyles Brown
Bryant wants the family to be remember as strong, loving people and not as tornado victims.
‘Miss Vicky was a strong woman, she loved all of her grand babies,’ she shared.
Bryant said Rachael was ‘fearless’ and had a ‘beautiful heart for other people’ and that Steven was a loving and supportive man, who loved his wife and even adopted her daughters.
‘He truly adored [Rachael]. He called her the love of his life,’ she said. ‘He adopted both of those girls and gave him his last name.’
Bryant also said a man who was helping with the clean-up reached out to her on Facebook after finding a muddy photo album that belonged to the family. He cleaned the album and bought frames for each of the pictures in an effort to preserve them.
‘Such incredible, nice people out there,’ she added.
Most of the Brown family members were found shortly after the twister struck, however, it took nearly a week for searchers to locate Nyssa.
Police said during a press conference Thursday after finding Nyssa, all missing persons in Warren County have been accounted for.
‘What makes this even more tragic is that Nyssa is the final member of the Brown family to be located. Her mother, her father, her three siblings and her grandmother also perished in this terrible storm,’ said Bowling Green Police Officer Ronnie Ward.
‘We ask that you pray for [the family]. This is a tough time for them. It’s a tough time for our community and we just need people to pray.’
The county’s search efforts, which began with 244 missing persons, have no come to an end.
‘Along with the Brown family, there were many families lost and we want you to remember those as well,’ he said. ‘We want you to pray for those families as well.’
Seventeen members of the Bowling Green community died as a result of the tornado. Sixteen were killed by the tornado or died from injuries sustained in the storm. One man died after he suffered a heart attack while cleaning up debris at his daughter’s house, the Warren County coroner confirmed.
Officer Ward reiterated: ‘We need your prayers.’
Officials work along Moss Creek Avenue to clean-up after a twister struck the street, killing 11
A church group member helps to clean up what is left of a home where she stands in Bowling Green, Kentucky on Dec. 14
Selveta Besic, who lost five relatives in the storm and has four more fighting for their lives, echoed the devastation felt by Bryant.
‘We were a family of 21, now it’s 16,’ Besic told the Courier Journal Tuesday afternoon.
Selveta, who lives less than a half-mile away from Moss Creek Avenue, said she was asleep on the upper level of her townhome Friday night when the sirens started blaring.
She quickly threw herself on top of her 9-year-old daughter as the twister ripped the roof. They then slid to the ground floor and took shelter in the bathroom.
Selveta said the storm passed within seconds.
Afterwards, she called her brothers – twins that lived with their wives and kids on Moss Creek Avenue – but got no response.
Worried, she picked up her daughter, carrying her through the rain, and ran to her brothers’ neighborhood.
When she arrived she found little left of the homes and bodies being pulled from the rubble. She said Alisa was found lifeless and holding her baby in her arms.
A family searches through the rubble of where their Bowling Green home once stood on Dec. 14
Police and rescue units are working to comb through the debris to ensure there aren’t any more victims underneath
The twister has left members of the community – which features a diverse population with families from Bosnia, Myanmar and Nigeria – stricken with grief.
Melinda Allen-Ray, who claims she has barely slept since the tornado alerts started screaming and she carried her grandchildren into the bathroom for shelter as the winds whipped her house apart, said she heard her neighbors screaming.
‘I heard them – it traumatized me. I think about that each night when I go to sleep, when I do sleep,’ she said. ‘I just think about all those babies.’
‘That’s hard to think about – you go to bed, and your entire family is gone the next day,’ said Ronnie Ward, with the Bowling Green Police Department.
The officer explained they normally instruct people to take shelter in their bathtubs and cover themselves with a mattress, but noted that those efforts wouldn’t have made a difference on Saturday because of the severity of the destruction.
He said several homes were so destroyed that the tornado ripped all the way through the floor, exposing the earth below.
Now, police are working to comb through the debris to ensure there aren’t any more victims underneath.
‘So you go about that task of trying to get this work done, and then you come across a wagon,’ Ward said.
‘And you think, that’s associated with a child somewhere. And did that child live? Those thoughts, they overtake you, they overwhelm you.’
Bowling Green resident Ganimete Ademi (pictured), a 46-year-old grandmother who fled Kosovo in 1999 during the war that killed her uncle and a nephew, said the storm destruction reminds her of her homeland and the dark days where people hid from bombs and lost whole families
A teddy bear is among the items found in the rubble in Bowling Green on Dec. 15
Bowling Green resident Ganimete Ademi, a 46-year-old grandmother who fled Kosovo in 1999 during the war that killed her uncle and a nephew, said the storm destruction reminds her of her homeland and the dark days where people hid from bombs and lost whole families.
‘We come from war; this reminds us, it touches the memory of that, where we’ve been and how we came here,’ Ademi explained. ‘I turn my memory back to 22 years ago.’
Resident Ben Cerimovic echoed her claims saying: ‘The feelings I’m having right now, I really can’t explain.
‘There’s a close-knit, thriving Bosnian community in Bowling Green, which has a robust refugee resettlement program to bring migrants to Western Kentucky. Most of them came here from war so their children would have a better life, he said. Now this subdivision looks like a war zone, scattered with things their children loved.’
Cerimovic added: ‘Every time I see [the wreckage], and I hear about those kids, I think about mine. What if they were my kids?’