Covering the Twister Damage in the South

VIDEO: Behind the Scenes, Tennessee Twister Aftermath
E-mail Rick Leventhal

Friday, February 8

We heard about damage to the Wynnewood estate when we stopped at a staging area for the Sumner County Emergency Management agency. State police, firefighters and other rescue workers huddled outside a church and trailer handling distress calls and discussing their next moves.

The county had at least seven fatalities, several just down the road near a historical site so we headed there to check it out.

We took a right turn off the two-lane highway and rounded a curve and there it was, a long big gray home sitting up on a hill, surrounded by felled trees, smashed barns and outbuildings and debris including pieces of roof.

Wynnewood was the longest log structure in the state and one of Tennessee's oldest, too, built exactly 180 years ago, once reportedly serving as a stagecoach stop. Historical Sites Director Jerry Wooten told me the cornerstone was laid February 7th, 1828. An earlier cabin was built on the grounds by Thomas Sharp Spencer in 1787. It was slammed too.

VIDEO: Go behind the scenes with Rick as he covers the Tennessee twister aftermath

Wynnewood took a direct hit from a twister. Wooten says the curator was inside at the time, heard the news coverage and went downstairs for safety. Then he heard the sound of a jet engine and felt the building shake. It was over in 40 seconds and when he raised his head the roof and second floor had been ripped off above him. He could see the sky.

Chimneys were toppled and their bricks scattered by the ferocious wind. Pieces of the roof were found more than a mile away. More than 100 trees were lost too ... trees planted by the original owner, Dr. Wynne, almost two centuries ago.

The house shifted six to eight inches off its foundation and antique furniture inside was also damaged, blown away or destroyed.

Wooten told me he cried when he saw what happened to the landmark structure and he's desperate to rebuild, but it'll be a terrific challenge that could take years and millions of dollars to complete.

Wednesday, February 6

When the alarm went off extra early, I smacked it and almost went back to sleep. Then I remembered, "Deadly storms. I gotta pack and catch a plane!"

I was showered, geared up and out the door in 30 minutes. I saw my producer Maryam in the security line and met the crew at the gate.

The plane was small and the flight a bit bumpy, especially the landing because of high winds, but we didn't see any damages in the Memphis area. It wasn't until we got about five miles outside Jackson that we began to see evidence of the twisters. Trees snapped in half on both sides of the highway. Tractor trailers knocked on their sides. Utility lines down. And then we got to the campus of Union University.

I've covered plenty of natural disasters and the biggest hurricanes of the past 20 years, but was still awestruck by the scene here. Nearly every car in the parking lots was damaged or destroyed. Windows blown out, dents from debris, some vehicles clearly pushed by the wind into others. A Mustang was on its roof, crushed. A big Toyota Tundra Pickup was on its nose, its rear wheels on top of a dumpster, with an SUV next to it lying on its side.

The dorms were shredded. Roofs gone, walls exposed, windows just holes now. A wall of cinderblocks collapsed on a bed on a second floor. A water heater hung exposed from cables upstairs, a refrigerator spilling out through an open wall below.

I spoke to one kid on crutches who told me he and seven others were pinned under several feet of debris for four hours, and then I met the cops who helped dig them out. They spent six hours on campus clearing wreckage and making sure all the injured and trapped were freed and treated.

Another student told me how he heard the warning siren, saw the funnel cloud, felt his ears pop, then ran, gathering several others, taking refuge in a bathroom just like they were trained. He heard crashing, the walls shook and pipes burst. He smelled gas and they got out, and then he ran to the girl's dorm where he says he wrapped something around his fist, punched out a window, and helped 15 to 20 girls climb thru and find safety.

At least 50 students were treated at the hospital and some are still there, but remarkably not a single one was killed on campus. Union is affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination so I asked a couple of the kids about their faith and how this event affected them.

One told me how awestruck he was by God's power and how reaffirming it was to see no loss of life. "It's a miracle," he said.

Another says it shows, "God is sovereign and God is always good. He definitely had his hand on us last night."

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Rick Leventhal is a New York based reporter for FOX News Channel.