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Students recall experiences from the Union Tornado of 2002

JACKSON, Tenn.Nov. 13, 2002 – With classes back in session on Tuesday, stories of Union students and their experiences with the events over the weekend began to circulate. The following are brief accounts which give witness to the seriousness of the storm and the thankfulness that God provides.

Catherine Bland, a junior DMS major, was with eight other people in her McAfee room when the storms hit campus. “The door was propped open and when Meredith (Erlandson) came running in saying she’d seen a funnel cloud, we didn’t believe her,” she said. When the power went out, they ran to the bathroom and began to pray. After the sirens stopped, she opened the door and saw that the tree in the middle of McAfee had fallen on the stairs next to her room. Her car windows were also damaged.

Junior business major Jason Vaughn was watching the lightning from his room with his roommates, Justin Veneman and Trey Cadenhead, when he first realized that Union was probably going to be hit by a tornado. “I saw the triangle [tracking symbol] on TV that told where the tornado was and I figured out that it was right where we were, so I told my friends that it was probably going to hit Union, and we needed to take cover. Justin stayed in his room on the computer and phone until the power went out.” Leaves began swirling around in circles and the wind got louder, so they went into the bathroom with the power going out minutes later. “We stayed there until after our ears had popped.” Vaughn went outside, came back for flashlights, and then went outside to check cars and found that his car windows were cracked. The first pane of their room windows were broken, but since that was the only damage to their room, he stayed at the dorms the rest of the weekend. “It was good to see the staff and faculty on campus Sunday and Monday. That helped everyone else’s spirits stay high.”

Amanda Russell, a senior marketing major from Cunningham, Ky., lives in Dehoney in the McAfee Complex. When she heard the announcement to go downstairs, she went to Dodd in McAfee to be with three of her friends. “We were watching the news when the power went out and we had no flashlights. One girl had pulled a mattress into the living room to lay on while she watched the news, so we pulled the mattress into the bathroom.” They heard the wind and saw the ceiling tiles start rattling because of the air pressure. When it was over, they heard the RA knocking and asking if everyone was OK. She found that a tree had fallen in front of her car and her car was scratched up. “I went to Watters and was really impressed that Dean Thornbury was there immediately, and that Dr. Dockery was there. I thought they handled it very well. I had not understood how serious the situation was. Everyone pitched in and the campus looked so much better after Monday.” Russell went home Sunday. “Students are coping pretty well, and one of the things that probably helped was that the buildings held up so well. If the buildings had had more damage, students probably would have been more upset.”

Senior social work major Meredith Erlandson was standing outside a room in McAfee with her roommate, Amy Miller, watching the clouds. “[The clouds] were moving to the right, and then the breeze shifted to the left. I looked to my right and saw a funnel cloud forming, so I ran inside.” Nine other girls were huddled in the bathroom with her while the tornado struck the campus. As they prayed, they heard a tree fall outside their building. Erlandson was the first one from her room to go outside afterwards, and she saw that the tree she had parked next to had fallen on her car. She walked around outside for a little while because the weather had calmed. She was very impressed with how organized and prepared Dr. Dockery, Dean Thornbury, and the Residence Directors were, and also with faculty and staff being here Sunday and Monday. “What impressed me the most was the Freed-Hardeman [another university in West Tenn.] maintenance men [who had volunteered to help with the clean-up effort] coming to light our pilot light.”

Donna Reed, a freshman from Kingston Springs, Tenn., was watching a movie in her room in Blythe when she heard Union’s siren over the PA system. Her RA came to the door and the seven girls went to the bathroom, covered themselves with pillows and waited as the power went out and the wall beside them started shaking. “When it was over we didn’t think we’d have to move out, so we were about to go back to bed when people came in and told us we had to leave,” said Reed. “We were told that if we had friends on campus and could stay with them, we should do that or go to West Jackson Baptist Church.” Reed went to Duncan (in Hurt) that night, and then stayed at a friend’s house off-campus. She was able to move back in on Monday. “The residence people did a good job of making everyone take the situation seriously. Administration went out of their way to find places for people to stay, and they kept track of where everyone was. They tried to make sure everyone could stay informed and in touch. This has brought everyone closer to each other and to God, because He brought us through.”

As senior international business major Sarah Webster and a friend approached Exit 80B on their way home from Nashville, they saw green lightning and heard the tornado sirens. “While I was freaking out, we missed our exit,” recalled Webster. “By the time we got back to campus it must have been just after it hit because the place was deserted and everyone was still in their bathrooms.” As they drove onto campus, they passed under the downed power lines over the old guard shack, and felt the lines brush the top of the car. They didn’t realize the extent of what had happened to the campus until later. Webster left campus on Sunday, and said that the clean-up since then had been amazing.

Rose Michele, a senior music major, who lives in McAfee, spent he evening with eight other girls in the bathroom. “We were sitting in the bathtub, praying, and the walls were shaking, and we thought the buildings might collapse. We passed the cell phones around so that everyone could make one last call,” Michele recalled. When they felt it was safe, they went outside, but then heard on the radio that the tornado was on Ashport Rd. and the wind picked up. The RAs had instructed students to go back inside, so she and a couple of friends went back into the bathroom for about five minutes. Dan Herr, residence director for McAfee, went from room to room to check on people, which made Michele feel much better, because many people had not initially taken the warnings seriously. “Dr. and Mrs. Dockery were there and the rest of the administration were doing all they could to help out, and because of that everybody seemed to feel safe and like everything will be OK.” After she got a chance to survey the damage around campus, she said she has never seen anything like it.

Laura Gordon, a senior social work major and roommate of Michele Rose, said she saw debris flying and her ears started popping so she ran to the bathroom. “The last thing I heard before the power went out was ‘Get ready, North Jackson, this is going to be for y’all what January ’99 was like for South Jackson,’” said Gordon. She thinks the force of the tornado opened the door of the room she was in. After the tornado hit, she ran outside and saw that a light pole outside their room had snapped and fallen, and that her car had been picked up by the wind and moved on top of the light pole. “My parents and I were shocked that the damage was as bad as it was, but the number one thing is that no one was hurt,” said Gordon.

Brandon Thornsberry was in the ATO house with another ATO member when the tornado hit. “I saw the tree fall and we watched our shed fly past the French doors,” said Thornsberry. The two students huddled in the bathroom until the storm passed. A review of the damage revealed that the French doors had flown open, sending glass everywhere, and their rec room had been flooded from rain that had come in. The house suffered roof damage because the fallen tree had left a gaping hole in the ceiling, which created huge leaks when rains came again the next night.

Ingrid Renberg was working at Methodist Lebonheur Hospital when the power went out and they received phone calls all night about possible victims. She tried calling her roommates who were on campus at the time and was finally able to get in touch with at least two of them. They had made their way to a downstairs room with six other girls and all were safe. She didn’t arrive back on campus until late the next morning.

Laura Lee Moore was in Hurt Commons with several other students after the sirens began blaring the second time. “We squeezed into the hall with the snack machines and we could hear the glass wall break and saw shards of glass flying by,” said Moore. “I could hear the tornado, and it was just this howling wind, that almost sounded like a train.”

Janae Daniels was standing outside with her roommate when they both saw the funnel cloud as it approached. She pulled her roommate in and they ran for the bathroom as they listened to the wind howl. After the storm was over, she opened their door and saw that a tree had landed just a couple of feet from their door.

James Layton, an RSA at McAfee Complex had stayed pretty busy the evening of the storm running around to all of the upstairs rooms with McAfee residence director Dan Herr and RA Jesse Florida checking on students and making sure that everyone was downstairs. “We made it to the commons 10 minutes before the tornado hit, and we could see the sky turn brown with what we thought was debris,” said Layton. “Stuff flew by the double doors and I saw Dan open the door for some people who were trying to find cover.” He hid in the bathroom with some other guys from the commons until the storm had passed.

Kerstin Ure was with nine other girls packed into the bathroom at the time of the storm. She saw lots of wind and really big rain drops outside the window. “We were all holding hands and praying, and we could feel the pressure change and heard our bathroom pipes rattling,” recalled Ure. Once it was over, they looked outside their door and saw that a light pole from the parking lot had broken and landed in their front yard. Everyone was outside checking the damage and passing out cell phones so people could call friends and family.

Jonathan Miller, like many others, said this tornado experience was a first for him. He had been in the McAfee commons watching October Sky with some friends. “Ironically, we had thought about watching Twister but had changed our minds,” said Miller. Once the winds started to pick up as the tornado got closer, they rushed for shelter, hiding under tables and under the kitchen counter. “We could hear the glass break and the rushing wind. When we came out of hiding and saw the mess the winds had made of the commons, I was relieved to have been able to find my pillow.”

Dawn Akridge was in Jarman building in McAfee with seven other girls who had gathered for study sessions and movies. “After the second warning was announced, people began to panic,” recalled Akridge. She said she felt calm at first, opening the door, and looking outside. After the winds picked up and the rain began to fall, she could see and hear things hitting the wall and when the power went out, everyone grabbed flashlights and headed for the bathroom. “My friend and I went to the front door and we could see this horizontal rain – it looked like hail,” said Akridge. The doors were suddenly pulled out of her hands as the tornado sucked the door shut twice out of her grip. After the storm had passed, she left to check out the damage to her car and other rooms.

Returning from the Lambda Chi formal, Senior Ty Jones stopped by campus to change clothes before driving back to his apartment with friends. He parked his car in a corner spot right before midnight, leaving his friends in the car while he went inside to change. A few minutes later he drove away safely. Jones wouldn't find out until two days later that less than two minutes after he drove away, a telephone pole fell right where his car had been.

Steve Yzaguierre was standing outside his dorm room watching the storm when he heard a rushing sound that resembled the roar of a train. He quickly went inside and where he and Bo Irvin both watched the impact of the high winds through his kitchen window as a dumpster crashed into a nearby truck and a telephone pole plummeted on a car. When the transformer for their apartment blew up, seemingly right in front of their faces, both students were convinced to take shelter.

As Juniors Julie Paul and Stephanie Tocci huddled in Tocci’s bathroom full of girls in Patton 7, the fierce rain outside began to sound as if it were coming inside. In the darkness, Paul reached up and realized that the rain was coming in and that Tocci’s apartment was beginning to flood. The girls desperately attempted to save clothes and belongings from the water flooding into the apartment which was covering the floor at almost an inch. The kitchen ceiling began to fall apart as water poured in, leaving the light fixture hanging by a thread. The residents of Patton 7 are forced to live elsewhere until the carpet is replaced and their room repaired.

Three students were sitting on the front porch of Jennings Hall watching the storm and looking for signs of the threatened tornado when they realized that the weather was becoming too serious to be unprotected. They attempted to go inside but were unable to open the front doors and were forced to run around the building to another entrance where they finally escaped into the safety of Jennings. “We waited until the last possible moment to head for the bathroom because we were hoping to catch a glimpse of the tornado,” said junior Clint Smith. They admitted they had definitely put themselves at risk.

Students Tracie Holden, Laura Lee Moore, Jody Webster and Emily Price all contributed to this story.

Related Resource(s): More Tornado Damage Coverage
Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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