After flying home from Chicago on Saturday, Shawn Triplett drove straight to where most of the damage was. A tornado had struck his hometown of Mayfield, Kentucky, a day before, killing at least 76 people — including 12 children — across the state and destroying most homes and buildings. Triplett, a Marine with a truck full of recovery equipment, wanted to do anything he could to help.
“It’s a cliché thing to say, but in the Marine Corps, there’s this saying that Marines run toward the gunfight; they run toward danger,” Triplett told BuzzFeed News. “I had that mentality turned on. I was ready to go. ‘Let’s do something right now.’”
He first went to a volunteer center, where he met Liam Kennedy, a photojournalist from Bloomberg. Triplett offered to escort him around town so he could take photos. That’s when the two discovered the destroyed theater.
“I ended up in the back of the theater, and it was just real sobering,” Triplett said. “It was the first time that day that we had a chance to just stand there and take it all in, and we weren’t even talking. We were just taking it in and taking a break.”
Triplett pulled out his iPhone to snap a photo for his own memory. He didn’t think much of it until a few days later when he posted a series of his photos to Reddit. The photos show the empty theater, the town from eight stories high, crushed mail trucks, and the sun setting over piles of debris. As of Friday, the post has more than 157,000 upvotes.
“I just stood there, staring off and just letting all the emotions, you know, they all hit you at once," Triplett said. "I haven’t been able to find one word to describe everything.”
The pair also found a tall building across from the town's courthouse, where they climbed up to the eighth floor so they could see the town from a bird's-eye view.
“I’ve seen plenty of war zones,” Triplett said. “I’ve seen just absolute destruction, what bombs and gunfire and things can do, in my years of the Marine Corps, and I’ve never seen anything with that much destruction.”
Triplett is happy for publications to use his photos because he wants to draw more attention to the toy drive he is putting on for the kids who lost everything in the tornado right before Christmas. While he was in a church’s gym that was serving as a shelter, he walked around and overheard a son crying to his mother about losing his Christmas.
“It just broke me in half,” Triplett said. “I lost it. I don’t know all the variables of their story. They’re at a shelter. They probably lost their home, maybe they lost their jobs, maybe they lost their actual Christmas. I don’t know. It was just too much for me. That statement just split me in half.”
Triplett began reaching out to his friends on social media and raising money for a toy drive. A GoFundMe fundraiser has surpassed $45,000 as of Friday. He said every dollar will go to toys, even if he loses money in gas and wrapping paper.
Looking around Mayfield, Triplett said, he's reminded of the Mister Rogers quote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
“Every time I go back into town, I’m not paying attention to the destructive mess that I saw on the first day," Triplett said. "I’m paying attention to, wow, everybody’s coming together."