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Wilson's rescuers (AP/Andrew McMurtrie, The Jackson Sun)

Storm of faith

Disaster | Thanks to a tornado ripping through the Union University campus, student-athlete David Wilson now has a story to tell

David Wilson has never been the type to ask God, "Why?"

But that hasn't kept God from answering him. When a vicious tornado ripped through the Union University campus in Jackson, Tenn., a year ago last month (see "Like a war zone" and "Begin again"), Wilson, 20, was the most seriously injured.

He has only recently begun to walk again-both literally and with a new depth of faith. "I'm a lot closer to the Lord than I was before," said Wilson, who suffered "compartment syndrome," a potentially fatal accumulation of fluid pressure, in both legs, followed by kidney failure. "I've learned that we can't always control what happens in life, but we can control the choices we make to influence what happens."

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The twister, which struck on Feb. 5, 2008, severely damaged six nonresidential campus buildings and completely destroyed 70 percent of the dorms at the Southern Baptist-affiliated liberal arts school. Off campus, the storm chewed through 35 miles of Madison County, ripping entire forests out by the roots and leaving bare ground behind. In the town of Jackson, the tornado caused $100 million in damage, including $40 million at Union.

One year later, the university has repaired its academic buildings and completed construction of 14 new dormitories. On the lower level of the new residence buildings, specially designed bathrooms also serve as storm shelters. A new student commons building is now under construction and could be ready by fall.

When the storm hit, Wilson and six other male students had taken shelter in what was the Watters Commons building. "We knew it was coming and didn't really think anything of it," said Wilson, who at the time was a 19-year-old freshman on a soccer scholarship. "It was one of those 'it can't really happen to me' things."

But it did happen. The F-4 tornado (just one category below the most severe F-5 storms) and its winds of 170 miles per hour tore into the Commons building with a direct hit.

"I remember the wall behind my buddy collapsing," Wilson told me last week in a telephone interview from the Union campus. "Lights started flickering and we all bent down and did that elementary school cover-your-head thing. After that, the tornado itself was gone, but we knew we were stuck. It turned out there was 25 feet of building on top of us."

Wilson, still kneeling, was buried with his knees pinned to his chest, completely immobilized under a precarious tumble of walls that lay balanced one atop the other like pick-up sticks. While another of the trapped students called 911 on his cell phone to let rescuers know their location, Wilson managed to use his own phone to call his dad.

"I called and told him we were trapped in the bathroom of the Commons. But then my phone went out," Wilson said.

The tornado had transformed the bathroom into a dark, dusty tomb that smelled of freshly cracked concrete and plaster. "I could touch two of the other guys from where I was," he remembered. "When we talked to each other, it sounded like we were 30 feet away because there was so much rubble in between us."

Very quickly, because of his awkward position, Wilson lost blood flow to both his legs. His body responded by "compartmentalizing" his legs, rushing fluid there in an attempt to heal them. But rescuers would not reach Wilson and his companions for more than four hours. During that time, the fluid build-up spiked so high that it overloaded his kidneys ability to process it. Meanwhile, with his thighs against his chest and his knees pinned near his mouth, Wilson's lung capacity was slowly ebbing away.

"I knew from the beginning that eventually I would have trouble breathing because of the position I was in," he said. "I tried to talk as little as possible."

Wilson said the rest of the group prayed a lot and also sang spiritual songs. Some quoted Scripture. About every 10 or 15 minutes, each man would call out to let the others know he was still holding on. As long minutes ticked past in the dark, Wilson remembers that he thought about how badly he wanted to be rescued. But at some point, he just "had to leave it up to faith and say I'm either coming out of here and going home or going home to heaven."

From the beginning, those trapped could hear rescuers tapping away far above. "When they got close enough, we could smell the gas fumes from the chain saws," said Wilson. "That gave us second life. I thought, 'They're almost here, we're going to make it!'"

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