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Union student’s reflections: ‘My experience in the tornado’

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–I was in the Feb. 5 tornado that hit Union University. Around 5:30 p.m., I was studying at Books-a-Million, planning on riding out the storm there. After a few phone calls from concerned friends, I decided to return to campus. The weather began to change. It was stormy but felt like just an ordinary, frustrating tornado drill. I was stressing that I wasn’t going to get much studying accomplished.

About two minutes before the tornado hit, my roommate, Suzanne Short, who is also an RA (resident adviser), ran into our room and said, “Get in the tub, now!” My roommates and I headed to the bathroom, along with three girls from upstairs, and we got into the tub. Our ears started popping due to the pressure change. The lights went off. Hail was pounding our building. I was almost in the tub when the tornado hit.

Everyone asks, “Did it sound like a train?” It sounded like a thousand trains. The noise was incredible. It was a roar. I felt my legs being pulled up by the force. Then, everything collapsed. A tremendous amount of pressure just kept pressing us. Some of us were screaming. It pushed the breath out of me, so I couldn’t scream.

As quickly as it came, it left. And then there was an eery silence and darkness. I couldn’t see anyone in the tub with me. It was so hard to breathe. A wall pressed down across my back, and my legs hadn’t made it into the tub. They were pinned between a wall of debris and the edge of the tub.

One of the girls had her cell phone and thankfully could move enough to call 911.

My initial thoughts were: Every student on campus is either dead or trapped like we are. This is where I am going to die. No one will ever find us. We will be here for days and we won’t last that long. In the darkness, we accounted for each other and tried to calm each other down.

I assessed my situation. My legs were pinned, but I felt no pain. Breathing was my biggest issue. I began to think about what my death would be like. I only had a small pocket of air and my whole body was compressed. I realized I was going to pass out and then I would be with Jesus. That may sound morbid, but it allowed me to not panic about the process of my death.

At that point, I realized someone next to me was breathing her last breaths. I had no idea who it was. I called out Julie’s name; the breaths were interrupted, and she responded. My heart sank. I told Julie to breathe, not talk. I was positioned on top of her in such a way that if I moved, she either couldn’t breath or it caused her excruciating pain.

I cannot begin to describe the fear in my heart that this precious person was going to die underneath me. I prayed aloud. I quoted Scripture. At some point I found another friend’s hand and she was praying as well. After realizing this would most likely be the night of my death, I was able to move on and focus on simply breathing. At one point I had to tell Julie I was out of breath and couldn’t pray out loud anymore, but that I was still praying in my heart and mind.

This was not me being strong or brave or courageous. It was the power of Christ in me. He guided me in my thoughts. He helped me to focus on breathing, praying and helping encourage Julie to breathe. The whole experience was terrifying but God was in the midst of us. I recall at times just crying out: “God, You are here. Give us strength.”

At one point, Kellie Roe calmly said, “Heather, it’s going to be OK.” Kellie doesn’t recall this, but God spoke through her in that moment. I had an overwhelming sense of peace -– not because I was confident we would be rescued from the fact we were either going to join Christ in heaven or He was going to sustain us and leave us here on earth for a little while longer.

When rescue teams arrived, they heard muffled sounds under the pile of debris that used to be my dorm room. There was 15 feet of rubble on top of us. They had to remove it by hand. Julie’s breathing was erratic and she was in and out of consciousness. As rescuers neared our tub, it was terrifying because the debris shifted and the pressure increased. Several of the girls were screaming. Finally, light broke through.

But Julie wasn’t doing well. I couldn’t move because it hurt her and she couldn’t breathe. Her neck was exposed in such a way that if the rescuers slid the debris off, her neck would snap. She told me I had to tell them where she was. The rescue workers told us not to scream and panic, because they thought we were in pain each time we did.

Then, I saw one of the firefighter’s face. I screamed at him: “I am not panicking. You have to listen to me. There is someone stuck under me and if I move she can’t breathe. Her neck is exposed, so you can’t slide the debris. You have to lift it.”

When they lifted off the main piece, for the first time in 45 minutes we could breathe in fresh air.

They got the other girls out and Julie and I were left. They tried to get me next, but my legs were still pinned. So, they got Julie out. Then, a firefighter came and held my torso and head. He kept telling me, “We’re going to get you out of here.” It took a lot of maneuvering and strength on the part of the rescuers because I couldn’t feel my legs enough to pull them out myself. A 2×4 next to my right knee -– between the edge of the tub and mass of debris -– kept just enough of the pressure off of my legs so that I didn’t completely lose blood flow to my lower extremities. It saved my legs.

We were rescued. We sustained only minor injuries. I ended up being taken to the emergency room because I passed out, but it was just from the shock. My body is intact. I am now walking around without a limp and I am just experiencing pain from the strained muscles in my back.

As I reflect over Tuesday night, I see the Lord. I cannot explain our survival and the fact that there were no fatalities aside from the fact that God loves us a whole lot and He is not through with us here on earth. The destruction and chaos of Tuesday night is incredible. The amazing power, strength, grace and love of Jesus Christ is the only explanation I have to offer. In the midst of the chaos and rubble, He knew how each board, each brick, each piece of metal and concrete was placed and He protected us.

Another thought that keeps recurring is the testimony of the father of a friend who was killed in an avalanche a month ago. She died and her brother made it out. Their father said, “Our God saves. He saved Nick from the avalanche, and He saved Lygon unto Himself.” Those words ring so true of my experience.

I have struggled in the past with my faith, wondering if I were truly saved, wondering what my last thoughts would be. Well, now I know. My last thoughts were: God has me. Either way I am OK. I will either join Him in heaven or He will save me for yet a little while longer here on earth.

I lived through a tornado. However, I am not fearless. The next few months actually are a scary thought to me right now. I have a lot to work through. There are sounds and feelings stored in my memory that are terrifying and paralyze me at times. My dear friend almost died underneath me. I am struggling to come to grips with that. I am struggling to sleep because there are so many vivid images and feelings when I shut my eyes.

However, I find hope in this: God knew, as I lay pinned in that tub, that I would make it out. He is the One responsible for getting me out. Simply put, He is not through with me yet. He already knows what each and every second of the next few weeks and months hold for me, my friends and family. Knowing that gives me hope; it keeps me going. He sustained me through Tuesday night and He will continue to sustain me in the days that follow.

My friend Beth McDowell, a nurse who was on site at Union Feb. 5 and was with me as they were putting me onto the stretcher, quoted these verses to me: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

As you have read my story, you’ve read a lot about God. It may sound odd if you don’t know Him personally. But here’s the truth: I cannot explain ANY of the events of Tuesday without acknowledging that God was there. He sustained and covered us all with His protection. I should not be alive today -– but I am because He still has plans for my life here on earth. He is good. If you don’t know Him, you need to. He loves you. He wants a relationship with you. I pray that through my story, you have caught a glimpse of who He is. His love. His sovereignty. His strength. His grace. And ultimately, His salvation.
Heather Martin is a junior nursing student at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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  • Heather Martin