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Begin again

Disaster | Union University prepares to restart classes following twisters

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

The clock tower at Union University is frozen at 7:02. That's when an EF-4 tornado tore through the Southern Baptist school's 3,200-student campus in Jackson, Tenn., on Tuesday evening, Feb. 5. But little else on campus has been standing still, as over 1,000 volunteers, alumni, and local, state, and federal emergency personnel have worked round the clock in the days following the storm to rescue the wounded, care for students and faculty, begin cleanup, and prepare to restart classes: School officials are set to begin again Feb. 20.

"It is absolutely amazing to think that we will be able to start classes within two weeks of this devastating story," school president David S. Dockery said. Student housing for 800 students of 1,100 who lived on campus was destroyed when the cluster of tornadoes tore through parts of Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, killing 59 people and injuring dozens. The storm system packed winds topping 200 mph and is one of the deadliest to hit the Southeast.

Rescue workers in Jackson spent more than five hours digging through piles of twisted rubble before reaching 13 students buried alive after they took shelter in the bathrooms of the collapsed commons building near the campus center.

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Using their cell phones, several students directed rescue workers to their location 25 feet beneath an estimated three tons of concrete and rebar. "You could hear the chainsaws and them hitting the cement. You could hear the cracking," student Kevin Furniss, 20, told reporters from his hospital bed. Then "someone outside reached out and grabbed my hand. It felt like life had been given back to me." In all, 51 students were hospitalized with injuries. A week later all but four had been discharged. The four remained on dialysis for kidney failure, with two in serious condition.

That more students weren't injured and no lives were lost was remarkable considering the damage to the campus: Forty percent of the dorms were destroyed and another 40 percent were severely damaged. Other buildings suffered heavy damage, and the parking lot was strewn with wrecked cars piled on top of each other. "It looks like a war zone," Dockery said the day following the storm. He estimated the damage was "15 times worse" than the $2.6 million the school suffered in a 2002 tornado. He underestimated: Adjusters now set damage to the 290-acre campus at $47 million.

But buildings are replaceable and lives are not, noted U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff when they toured the campus and other devastated areas Feb. 8. The school's previous run-ins with tornados likely saved lives. The university had developed a detailed emergency response system, and alerted students to take cover ahead of the tornado. School officials had scheduled to put in place an emergency text-messaging system the day after the tornado struck. Even without it, when sirens went off, students were quickly ushered into bathrooms and other interior spaces.

The school also learned from other collegiate tragedies, said Greg Thornbury, dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union, citing the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy in 1999 where 11 students were killed and dozens injured, and last year's shooting at Virginia Tech. "We definitely have learned from others' hardships," Thornbury told WORLD, "but also there is a spiritual dimension to the response to this crisis. The students remained calm and there has been a constant sense of God's presence." Within three hours of the tornado's touchdown at Union, all students had been evacuated from campus and had been assigned or found housing in faculty or friends' homes.

A coordinated community response-which began when fire crews and police responded to students' 911 calls, arriving on campus less than 15 minutes after the tornado despite power outages and high winds-continued the week following the storms. Tennessee National Guard provided security on campus. FEMA set up a mobile claims unit on campus Feb. 10.

That same day, nearby Englewood Baptist Church voted unanimously to turn over to Union an inn that it owns and operates to house 300 students through the end of 2008. And over 1,000 volunteers, including local residents and alumni who traveled from far away, showed up for cleanup. They sifted debris and combed near dorm rooms to bag belongings now tagged for students. Heavy equipment moved in Feb. 13 to begin demolition, and students are scheduled to begin returning Feb. 18.

"We have a long, long way to go," Thornbury told WORLD Feb. 12. "We need help. But it's also a chance for us to shine." -with reporting by Jamie Dean

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