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Tennessee College Ravaged by Storms

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

JACKSON, Tenn. —  Danny Song bolted for cover as a tornado tore through the dormitory complex at Union University _ then the ceiling came crashing down on top of a couch that was wedged against him.

For the next hour and a half, he lay pinned in the rubble.

"I was in a fetal position," the 20-year-old junior recalled Wednesday. "I tried to lift up but I couldn't. I was thinking I would lose my legs. I couldn't feel them for a long time. I just felt really helpless."

Rescuers ultimately dug him out, along with 25 other Union students who were stuck behind jammed windows and the wreckage of walls, floors and furniture _ damage wrought by the violent weather that swept across five states Tuesday.

The storm left more 50 people dead across the South. Remarkably, no one died here.

About 50 Union students were taken to a hospital, nine of them with injuries classified as serious, said Tim Ellsworth, the school's news director.

Though the small, private college was heavily damaged, school officials said students escaped life-threatening injury primarily because they quickly took shelter in dorm bathrooms and other interior spaces.

Tornadoes are a regular threat in Jackson, a city of about 60,000 people 75 miles northeast of Memphis.

The campus suffered damage from tornadoes in 2001 and 2002. In 2003, a tornado struck downtown Jackson, killing 10 people and tearing a path of crumpled buildings, twisted metal and toppled trees. In 1999, twisters killed 10 people in Jackson and Clarksville.

This time, emergency planning and broadcast warnings of the twisters prevented more serious injuries, university president David Dockery said.

Each dorm room and apartment on campus is required to have the school's tornado emergency procedures posted, according to a school handbook. All the buildings are equipped with alarms that warn of both tornadoes and fire.

"When the sirens went off the entire process went into place quickly," Dockery said, noting that students had been "ushered into rooms, into the bathrooms, interior spaces."

The students, he added, "demonstrated who they are, and I'm so proud of them."

The university was in the path of at least one tornado that plowed a 35-mile, west-to-east swath across Madison County, up to a half-mile wide, said Marty Clements, emergency management director for the county.

The trapped included three young men who were surrounded by, but not buried by, rubble for more than four hours. Rescuers used a backhoe to dig a path to them, and they were freed without serious injury.

Song said he was pinned with his arms pressed to his chest and with a heavy pile of wreckage across both legs.

"We looked up and saw the funnel coming in," he said. "We started running and then glass just exploded. I hit the floor and a couch was shoved up against me, which may have saved my life because the roof fell on top of it."

Song's legs were not badly hurt, and he was back on campus the next morning surveying the wreckage.

The university's main dormitory complex of 13 two-story apartment buildings was damaged beyond repair.

Some buildings collapsed, and others were missing walls and roofs. The complex parking lot was strewn with wrecked cars and small trucks, many flipped on their backs and other stacked in small piles here and there.

"I've never been through anything like that before _ the noise. Your ears pop. It makes your skin kind of crawl. It's really creepy," said Andrew Norman, 20, who huddled with seven friends in the bathroom of a dorm room during the storm.

The college, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, has about 3,200 students, with 1,200 living on campus.

Elizabeth Walker, 20, was among a dozen students who gathered in a dorm room to ride out the storm together.

They had already begun squeezing into a bathroom, she said, when several students took a last, quick check out an apartment window.

"We could see it coming," Walker said. "It was like, 'Oh, no.'"

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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