Rescue workers in Jackson, Tenn., spent more than five hours digging through piles of twisted rubble last night before reaching 13 students trapped in dorms at Union University after a devastating tornado ripped through the Southern Baptist school's 3,200-student campus.
A cluster of deadly tornadoes tore through parts of Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee on Tuesday night, killing more than 50 people and injuring dozens.
At Union University, President David Dockery reported that rescue workers took 51 students to the hospital, and that nine had suffered serious injuries. The school reported no deaths. "By God's providence, no lives were lost," Dockery said in an open letter posted on the school's website.
That more students weren't injured and no lives were lost was remarkable considering the damage to the campus revealed in the morning's light: Forty percent of the dorms were destroyed (like the one pictured above), and another forty percent were severely damaged. Other buildings suffered heavy damage, and the parking lot was strewn with wrecked cars piled on top of each other.
Dockery estimated the damage was "15 times worse" than the $2.6 million in damage the school suffered in a 2002 tornado. "It looks like a war zone," he said.
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 last night's twister.
"When the sirens went off the entire process went to place quickly," Dockery said at a news conference this morning. "[Students] were ushered into rooms, into the bathrooms, interior spaces."
After the tornado swept through campus, 13 students remained trapped behind jammed doors and windows, fallen walls, wrecked floors, and scattered furniture in dorms reduced to "piles of rubble," according to Tim Ellsworth, the school's news director.
After a five-hour rescue effort, including volunteer help from Union students, the students were rescued and transported to the hospital. Some suffered serious injuries, but all were expected to live.
Greg Thornbury, dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union, stayed at the trauma unit with injured students until 3:30 a.m. "The boys pinned under the rubble were all rescued by God's grace," Thornbury told WORLD.
Rescue workers said the storms killed at least 26 people in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky, and four in Alabama. Members of the National Guard helped rescue crews go door-to-door today looking for more survivors and victims.
In Macon County, Tenn., Ray Story tried to take his 70-year-old brother, Bill Clark, to the hospital after a tornado destroyed his mobile home, critically injuring his brother. Clark died as Story trekked through debris-covered streets. "He never had a chance," Story's wife, Nova, told the Associated Press. "I looked him right in eye and he died right there in front of me."
President Bush pledged federal help as rescue workers searched through the rubble, and residents picked through the remains of their homes. Officials said the batch of tornadoes was the nation's worst in a 24-hour period since 1999.
Back at Union University, Dockery said classes wouldn't resume until at least Feb. 18. Clean-up efforts will begin tomorrow. In the meantime, volunteers in the community offered to host students, and local churches organized buses to transport students to volunteer homes. A school blog providing updates on the emergency reported that plenty of housing was available to students.
Dockery said that the rebuilding efforts would be "lengthy and extensive." He added: "We thank God for His providential care. With the help of God we will move forward together."