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."
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!'"
Gradually, as firefighters and other rescuers lifted away walls and debris, light filtered down into the bathroom. But just as it seemed their final rescue was imminent, a firefighter's radio crackled with news that another tornado was bearing down on the area. A dispatcher instructed firefighters to cover the Commons rescue site with a tarp and return after this new storm had passed.
"But none of the firefighters left," Wilson said. "Which is a good thing, because I probably would've died."
As it was, firefighters continued using inflatable devices to lift the tangle of walls off Wilson's back, freeing him for transport to the hospital. The next day, doctors told Wilson and his family that the swelling in his legs had caused kidney failure. Also, fluid pressure was systematically damaging his nerves. They recommended a series of "fasciotomies," long incisions in the skin that would, like cuts in a sausage casing, allow the legs to expand, relieving pressure on the nerves.
That day, surgeons made eight incisions, from ankle to knee and from knee to crotch on both sides of each leg. After that, it was a waiting game to see when his kidneys would reengage. Wilson was on dialysis for five weeks, then in the hospital for a total of two months. He had to use crutches to walk until October 2008. Today he wears a brace on his right leg because of lingering nerve damage.
In 2007, David Wilson entered Union as a student-athlete. Now he is simply a student. But the change, he reflected, created for him a choice: "I can lay around and complain about not playing soccer anymore, or I can get up and live life, even though it's a little bit different."
Asked why he thought God would choose to send his life down a different path, Wilson immediately answered with the story of a soccer teammate from Canada who, in the storm's wake, committed his life to Christ: "About two weeks after the tornado, he said to me, 'I've been watching you since you got to Union, and I've been watching your family since last week. I've fought Christianity for a long time. But after watching you guys, I know now that it's true.'"
Before the storm, Wilson said, "I never really had a great, powerful conversion experience. I was saved at age 7 and always brought up in church. Sometimes I found it hard to witness to people. Now I just tell this story, and everybody immediately tunes in and listens. At the end, I witness to them. I'm not in control of whether or not people accept Christ, but I can plant seeds. That's all we can do."