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Tornados tear apart Union University

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  • A 60 mph to 70 mph tornado tore through the dorms at Union University, Jackson, Tenn
  • No one was killed
  • Around 80 percent of the dorms were destroyed with about $40 million in damages
  • Students mourn loss of their dorms, but attribute everyone surviving to God

When the tornado hit Stephen Williams' dorm at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., at 7:03 p.m. Feb. 5, he was crouching barefoot beneath a mattress in his living room.

He felt the pressure in his ears drop, and watched the sky turn orange and blue from his corner window.

"Everything got quiet and it sounded like a freight train rolling through the complex," said Williams, a sophomore studying broadcasting.

The room began shaking and he heard the kitchen windows shatter. The lights cut out.

For the next 10 to 15 seconds, Williams burrowed beneath the mattress as flying debris hit him in the back.

"Everything was crossing my mind," Williams said. " 'Are we going to make it through this?' I was in a state of shock."

When Williams stepped outside his dorm after the storm passed, his world had changed.

The tornado punched straight through Union University, destroying 80 percent of the buildings, said Mark Kahler, associate vice president for university communications.

Out of the 1,200 students living on campus, no one was killed.

"The tornado unfortunately did the most damage in the place where there was the most people," Kahler said. "The biggest story is when you look at the destruction, the province of God was here with us."

Most of the buildings are so devastated that they will have to be torn down, Kahler said. He estimated the Christian university had around $40 million in damages.

The women's dorm buildings were hit the worst. A former two-story building is now a pile of concrete, Williams said.

Williams compared the campus now to what Oklahoma City looked like after the bombing in 1995. Dorms are completely gone and cars are stacked on top of one another, he said.

"I've never seen anything like the destruction that was there," Williams said. "It's going to take a while to get that memory out of the way when I think about school and how torn up everything is."

Hannah Colbey, a junior studying athletic training, said the campus looks like a war zone. Many of the buildings look like doll houses because the backsides of buildings are torn out, she said.

Kahler said 13 students were trapped in the dorms. Rescue crews freed six of them quickly, but seven were buried under 20 feet to 30 feet of debris, he said. All of the students were freed three hours later.

Two students are still in critical condition on breathing ventilators and one is in guarded condition after just being removed from a ventilator, but all are expected to recover.

"People right now are rightfully rejoicing that everybody's alive," Kahler said. "We got an extra measure of strength from above."

Colbey also said God protected her life during the tornado.

When the storm began, she had just pulled into the parking lot and heard the sirens. Colbey went into the college's bookstore, Lifeway, where her husband works, to find him.

"Within three minutes, I would have been in the parking lot and I probably would have not made it," Colbey said.

Her husband called and was surprised she made it into the building because the bookstore employees had locked the doors. When the manager of Lifeway found she made it in the building, he checked the doors again. All of them were locked.

"It's such a God thing," Colbey said. "If anyone were to walk on that campus that next day, it's apparent that somebody should have died."

While everyone is safe, Union University faculty is scrambling to find housing for 700 to 800 students, Kahler said. Families and churches have opened their doors to stranded students who cannot go home.

He said the university is looking to hotels, family homes and apartments in Jackson to house students for the rest of the semester. The university plans to reopen Feb. 18.

"There will be some sadness when (students) come back and see the campus. The places that they love are gone. It will be tough," Kahler said. "Our students realize Union is more than buildings. It's people and relationships."

Will Hayden, a pre-med junior at Union who was also in the men's dorm when the tornado hit, said all his friends have mentioned feeling an overwhelming sense of depression and gloom.

Most of their possessions and cars are gone.

"Our way of life, our whole life right now I've spent at college – I've felt that ripped out before our eyes," Hayden said. "Those dorms were fond memories for us."

Still, Hayden said he's excited to return to school next week. For the rest of the semester, Hayden's three roommates will live with him at his house in Jackson.

"We're trying to have fun and put it behind us," Hayden said. "Trying to get in a good mood again and get some sense of normalcy back to our lives."

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