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Union students recall shock of tragic tornado

Evangeline Webb and Nathan Tilly wait for assistance while at command central on Union's torn campus.  Photos by Matthew Diggs
Evangeline Webb and Nathan Tilly wait for assistance while at command central on Union's torn campus. Photos by Matthew Diggs

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 8, 2008 – Shock and terror filled the faces of Union University students as they told their stories of the devastating tornado that ripped through the Jackson, Tenn., campus Feb. 5.

Although most Union students were not physically injured, the effects of the tornado left them emotionally and mentally drained. Students will long remember that day — and not because it was Super Tuesday or because the new semester had been in session for only one week.

At 7:02 p.m., students were amazed to find a devastating tornado had torn apart a lot of the dorms, but miraculously no one was killed. However, 51 students were treated at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. Three days later only five students remain in the hospital, two in intensive care. The common reaction on campus has been disbelief and shock.

Matt Carter, a freshman business administration major from Steele, Mo., was not huddled in his dorm room, hiding from the tornado like most other students. Instead, Carter was outside running from the tornado.

“I was in the parking lot on the other side of Jennings Hall when the tornado lifted me off the ground,” Carter said. “I ran to the Adams dorm and held on to the first door I saw. Once the glass shattered in the window, I jumped in the room to take cover. Amazingly, I came out of the storm without a scratch on my body.”

As the pressure changed and ears began to pop, students knew this was more than a mere thunderstorm. Minutes before the tornado struck, students were outside running around, watching TV and popping popcorn in the room, preparing for a nice, low-key night. However, within minutes, the sky transformed, with the sudden appearance of an EF-4 tornado packing winds between 207-264 mph.

Students recalled seeing flashes of green light and an orange glow as the tornado shattered what used to be residence complexes at Union University. Approximately 40 percent of the dorms were destroyed, and another 40 percent were severely damaged.

“I was in a room in the Dodd dorm,” said Evangeline Webb, a freshman nursing major from Wappingers, N.Y. “There were about 15 of us in the room. Since I was the last one in the bathroom, I had a lot of sticks and dirt thrown into my face. Today, I am still finding residue in my hair.”

“Miraculous” and “unbelievable” are words that students used to describe the event. With the strong winds over 200 mph, they all agreed it was nothing less than a miracle there were no fatalities. As many as 15 students took cover in some apartments.

“There were six people in the bathroom already, and six of us were sitting in a bedroom, looking out the window, keeping an eye on the storm,” said Katy Pope, a sophomore digital media studies major from Sylacauga, Ala.

“We jumped up and ran toward the bathroom, but we did not make it there in time,” she continued. “As the storm hit, one of my friends was thrown in the direction of the couch and was knocked out. We were all crying and screaming, not sure of how we were going to get out. None of us were wearing shoes, but luckily, we found some before the firefighters helped us out of our room.”

Luke Burleson, a sophomore biology major from Jackson, Tenn., was also in a room that contained about 15 students. Minutes before the twister hit, Burleson was outside doing a little of his own storm chasing. He recounted seeing two bright lightning flashes, the formation the twister and shingles and other debris coming from the roof of Jennings Hall.

“The tornado was west of us,” Burleson said. “We were able to see the shingles flying off of Jennings, and we knew we had to get inside.”

Burleson and his friends shut the main door to their apartment but saw the approaching storm through the window. He said the night had an ominous feel -- dramatically changing from the sound of a passing freight train to an eerie stillness in the night. With the quiet, the sky turned a shade of orange, and the pressure drastically dropped -- the feeling one gets diving to the bottom of a deep swimming pool.

“Suddenly, the noise of bursting and shattering glass filled our ears,” Burleson said, “and we were thrown against the wall.”

In contrast to students located in residence complexes, some students attended evening classes. For these students, the tornado was not their primary concern. Instead, Super Tuesday was being discussed in the classroom.

“I was in night class in the Penick Academic Complex when a woman came in our classroom and told us we were under a tornado warning,” said Nathan Tilly, a senior political science major from Dyersburg, Tenn. “All of the sudden, we felt the walls begin to shake and seven of my classmates and me took shelter under a table. Soon after, students from all over campus began flooding in (to the academic building). Women were crying and lots of people were bloody.”

Currently, students and families are flocking to campus, awaiting news of when they could recover any belongings that survived the storm. A Union sign and mattress were discovered more than a mile away.

“I can see into my room because all the walls are gone,” said Kate Johnson, a sophomore marketing major from Elizabethtown, Ky. “My TV is in the parking lot; the door to my room is on the stairs; my room is pretty much destroyed. I am just waiting to hear if anything can be salvaged.”

By Elizabeth Wood ('10) and Claire Yates ('09)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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