JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 3, 2009– In the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 2008, Union University President David S. Dockery drifted through the wreckage. Only hours before, an EF-4 tornado had whirled its way through the Union campus, leaving piles of rubble in its wake.
The tornado caused about $40 million in damage to the Union campus, wiping out 70 percent of student housing and badly damaging six other buildings. Fifty-one students were hospitalized that night, but no lives were lost.
As he tried to process the extent of the devastation, he knew that God had been present at Union the night of Feb. 5. And now, a year later, with the campus almost entirely rebuilt, Dockery knows even more fully the extent of God’s provision for Union University.
“As I looked at the rubble late Tuesday night, and especially when the sun came up on Wednesday morning, I said, ‘There’s no way we didn’t have 200 people die.’ I’m convinced – nobody will ever convince me otherwise – that God’s angels were unleashed to come as ministering spirits to His people that night and to protect those students in the most precarious of situations,” the Union president said. “I’m confident that’s what happened.”
Matt Kelley was one of those students who felt God’s hand of protection that night. Trapped for five hours in the crumbled men’s commons building, Kelley spent two and a half months in the hospital with serious leg injuries.
The past year, Kelley said, has taught him to trust in God completely.
“While I was stuck down there, and while I was in the hospital, I was completely helpless,” Kelley said.” I’ve come so far through this past year, and I’ve only come this far because God has guided me and carried me through.”
Though his rehabilitation was long and arduous, Kelly has almost completely recovered. He will return to competition with the Union golf team during the spring semester, walking just like everyone else.
“Extremely thankful every time I step out on the golf course, that God has allowed me to have a chance to do what I love to do again,” he said.
But while the students were alive on the morning of Feb. 6, Dockery wasn’t convinced that Union University was. At one point, as he looked at the student housing facilities in ruins, he entertained a thought -- not only was the spring semester a lost cause, but that Union as a whole might be as well.
“That was my worst fear – that the devastation was such that we may not be able to recover, at least in a timely fashion,” he said. “That was always my prayer, that God would somehow give us wisdom to figure out how to restart the semester. We knew we had to save the semester for the seniors, and then for others as well.”
Union did restart the semester two weeks later. But that was just the beginning.
Over the next several months, more than 5,000 volunteers and 8,000 donors from all over the world came to Union’s aid. The university regrouped and embarked upon an aggressive rebuilding plan that saw 14 new student housing buildings completed and opened for the fall 2008 semester.
Initial plans called for seven of the 14 buildings in the complex to be complete by the 2008 fall semester, with the final seven buildings to be opened for the 2009 spring semester. But the two contractors working on the project -- Worsham Brothers Construction Co. of Corinth, Miss., and Brasfield Construction Co. of Jackson, Tenn. – managed to finish the task much earlier than expected.
On Sept. 4, when the new freshman class arrived on campus, all 14 buildings were complete and ready for occupancy.
“This is highly unusual to complete a project of this magnitude as quickly as we have,” said Ken Brasfield, president of Brasfield Construction. “As I sit back and analyze what’s happened, I think Union’s need is what motivated the response. Everybody has had a total commitment and a passion to make sure that the job was completed by Sept. 1.”
Enrollment for the fall semester was up a hefty 14 percent, and early indications are favorable for another strong fall enrollment in 2009. Union dedicated the new housing facilities on Sept. 12. Six weeks later, the university opened the new Carl Grant Events Center.
For all practical purposes, Union’s restoration is largely complete, with only a commons building for the housing complex remaining to fund. The housing has been rebuilt. Other buildings heavily damaged have been repaired. Only months before, Dockery wondered if Union University’s best days were behind it. Now he thinks just the opposite.
He, and others at Union, can only sit back in amazement.
“I live with an awareness of God’s presence, his providence, his abilities to preserve life and to provide for us, in ways that I’ve never experienced before,” Dockery said. “When you look and see how close we came to total disaster, and at the same time how we were spared from that, you just have to cry out, ‘Thanks be to God.’”
Union will mark the one-year anniversary of the tornado with a thanksgiving dinner and service Feb. 5 at the Carl Perkins Civic Center in Jackson.
“Remembering Feb. 5: An Evening of Thanksgiving” will feature a 250-voice community choir, plus testimonies from students and others whose lives were changed by the tornado. The service will also include a time of recognition for the “dedicated efforts of first responders, community and church leaders, contractors, construction workers and all who went above and beyond the call of duty to help rebuild and restore Union University,” Dockery said.
The banquet will begin at 6 p.m. with the program starting at 6:45 p.m.