The TV weather reports in Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee warned that powerful tornadoes were moving through the region the evening of Feb. 5.
At Union University, in Jackson, Tenn., student Kellie Roe was watching those reports with roommate Heather Martin and four friends, Julie Boyer, Ashley Barnett, Rebecca Hartfield and Erin David. Roe’s other roommate, Suzanne Short, was working on campus that evening.
The mood in the dorm room was tense as it became clear that an F4 tornado was approaching the Union campus. Suddenly Short flung the door open. “Get in the tub now!” she said, and immediately ran back out again to warn others.
The students headed for the bathroom. At first, only three got into the tub while the others stood next to it. But as the air pressure dropped and their ears popped, Boyer said, “We have to get in now!”
Roe describes what followed:
“I crouched down on top of the other girls, and a second later the building was on top of us. I remember having an unbearable weight on my back, not being able to move as I was curled up in a ball, spitting out dust that was in my mouth. Erin’s knee was digging hard into my chest, and we were all screaming and asking if each other was OK. It was very dark, and [it was] hard to breathe as none of us could move.”
The six friends were trapped for 45 minutes, although Roe said it didn’t seem that long. She remembers praying out loud for a time but believes that she and the others passed in and out of consciousness during the time they were trapped. Rescuers were able to remove enough debris to get to the women and bring them out safely.
“Looking back on those 45 minutes and seeing where we were pulled from, there is no possible explanation [for] how we are all alive,” Roe said. “It shows that God is the One who saved us and had His hand on us. … It reminds me of God’s saving grace and how He has such a plan for my life.”
For many other Union students, the worst of the storm was over in seconds. The campus was silent and dark as students went outside to survey the damage. Cars were stacked on top of each other, and 80 percent of the dorms were destroyed. Many students were taken to the hospital for observation, and two remained hospitalized in early March. Still, no lives were lost, and officials at Union–the oldest institution affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention–praised God for His protection.
“I think the main thing that so many of us have taken away from this is how awesome God’s power really is and how, even in midst of devastation, He still protects and cares for us,” said Jacqueline Taylor, assistant dean of students.
The day after the storms, two chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team arrived in Jackson. They met with university president David Dockery and with city officials. More chaplains arrived later in the afternoon, and the team began ministering not only on campus but also throughout Jackson.
Other RRT members ministered in the areas of Clinton, Ark., and Lafayette, Tenn., which also were hit hard by tornadoes. Over the next month, RRT chaplains and volunteers prayed with more than 1,300 people in these areas, and 13 people prayed with chaplains to commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
One woman in Shirley, a town just east of Clinton, described a life that has seen more tragedy than most. She has lost two husbands to accidents and two homes to fires. Her daughter-in-law died nine years ago, leaving her as a mother figure for her now 9-year-old granddaughter. Then, on Feb. 5, the tornado destroyed her home. Rapid Response chaplains listened to her story. Although she had attended church in the past, she hadn’t made a commitment to Christ. She prayed with the chaplains to receive Christ, and she received the confidence of having a home in heaven that will never be destroyed.
The Rapid Response Team also deployed Feb. 15 to Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Ill., where a gunman had opened fire in a lecture hall a day earlier, killing five students and wounding 16 before killing himself. Area pastors and campus ministry leaders asked the team to lead a training session to teach church leaders, campus ministry leaders and NIU faculty members practical ways to reach out to the suffering with emotional and spiritual care in the name of Jesus Christ. Some 30 chaplains were on campus, listening to those affected by the tragedy and assuring them of God’s love.
Through Feb. 28, chaplains prayed with more than 1,100 people on the campus, including 11 who made commitments to Christ.