Keys unlock things. That is the only reason they exist. They are not pretty to look at. They have no secondary purpose. But the keys you see above no longer open any door. Yet I keep them still on my key ring every day, and I treasure them more than gold or any piece of art.
They used to open to the doors to the Barton 6 dorm as well as Bedroom B in Barton 6, where I slept. Both keys became useless after EF-4 Tornado destroyed my dorm, along with 80% of the rest of the other dorms.
In a few, short seconds, what had been this:
I was one of the most fortunate. I was uninjured. I was not trapped. Due to the tornado sirens, I had not been in my second-story dorm room but on the ground floor in a friend’s dorm. We were still hit, but we were far safer where we were than if we had been in our own dorm.
After calling my mother to let her know I was okay, I heard a scream. “HELP!!! HELP!!!” I burst outside but immediately stopped, staggered to the point of shock and forgot why I had just been running. It was dark, but I could see a little, and I didn’t recognize anything. The building in front of me was missing most of the second floor. I looked left, and more buildings and fixtures were missing. I looked right, and Watters Commons, the gathering place for the boys’ dorms, no longer existed. It was just a gigantic pile of rubble. I stepped back in disbelief, right as another call of “HELP!!!” rang out, reminding me why I had run out in the first place.
I started out in the direction I thought the cries were coming from, the commons. But not a second later, I heard another “HELP!!! OVER HERE!!!” from behind. I turned around, only for yet another cry to come from another direction. It was the same few voices, but between them being in slightly different places and the change in the landscape altering the echoes, I was turning around in circles, growing more frustrated and worried with each passing second.
Finally, I heard someone scream, “I found him! He’s under here! I can’t lift it, come help!” I calmed down, knowing that at least someone had found the person in trouble. I began making my way towards the commons again because that was where I first thought I heard the voices. Also, once I calmed down knowing someone had found the person in distress, I realized it was most likely the gathering place that had been completely flattened someone would be trapped.
As I stumbled over the ruins towards the voices (not even realizing my danger of down power lines), I bumped into someone. Suddenly, a bright flashlight was in my face, I just caught sight of a badge before the light completely blinded me.
“Go the PAC,” he said.
“But there are people who-“
“I know exactly what’s going on, and I’m telling you to get out of our way and to the PAC, move!”
I later learned a pattern – firefighters accepted help. Police officers were trying to clear the scene. My only guess is that the two natures of people who join those branches of our first responders are just different. Police aim to protect, so that meant anyone not hurt needed to get out of the way before they did. Firefighters seek to save those already near death and take all the help they can get.
But I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew I had been ordered by a police officer to get away, and when I delayed a second time, he literally turned my shoulders and shoved me towards the PAC building (firmly, but it was not harsh).
What I didn’t know was that I had been walking towards my cousin, Kevin Furniss. It was not his voice I heard. He was buried too deep. But there had been 12 boys buried in that building, including my blood relative. Had I known my cousin was down there, I would never have left. But I didn’t, and I trusted that the officer knew what he was doing, and so I made my way to the main academic building.
There was a line outside as thousands of students poured in. Some were obviously injured. Some were hardly dressed, having been taking a shower or a nap when the tornado hit, forcing them to just grab something to cover themselves with before getting out of the unstable buildings.
In front of me was another young man, with a deep gash on the back of his left shoulder, maybe two inches long, bleeding profusely. Blood was just streaming down his back, dripping off around his waist on the ground below.
We had now entered the main hallway. Someone, I believe it was Dean Thornbury (Mrs. – both she and her husband were deans and both had a Ph D., so in conversation with others we couldn’t use their prestigious titles without confusion, so we called them “Mr.” and “Mrs.”) who was the in charge of student life, was shouting “Uninjured students to the left! If you are hurt, go to the right!”
The guy in front of me began turning left. I tapped his uninjured shoulder. “Umm… you need to go the other way. You have a huge cut on your left shoulder.” He just stared at me. I realized he was in shock. “Just trust me, go that way,” I said, pointing to the right. Without saying a word, he shuffled off towards the nursing students. Union University has one of the premier nursing programs in the country, and it was a Godsend that night. Professors and students alike were treating their friends and classmates, dressing wounds and patching up those they could, or helping get those more seriously wounded to EMTs.
I had not gone far when I saw our housing director’s wife and her two kids, two-year-old Sophia and four-year-old Isaac. Isaac was leaning on her leg, crying and wiping his eyes like they hurt (particles of dry-wall had gotten in his eyes I later learned). Sophia was in her arms with a blank stare that saw nothing. The family lived on campus, just like the students. The mother was bleeding badly from a cut on her forearm, but she wouldn’t leave her kids. We knew each other well. I watched preschoolers at church, and I often would entertain Sophia and Isaac during get-togethers on campus while their parents helped students get food. “You need to get that bandaged up,” I told her. “I’m guessing you’ll need stitches, but you certainly need to get it cleaned and covered up at least.”
“I can’t leave them,” she said. “And I don’t want to lose them setting them down for them to treat my arm.”
“I’ll watch them. Just go get that cleaned up.”
She thanked me as she handed Sophia to me and came back a maybe ten minutes later with her arm wrapped in several layers of gauze.
I asked her where her husband was. That was when I learned about the students buried in the commons. I still didn’t know my cousin was one of them, but she said at least ten boys had been in there, along with her family.
“The wall fell on top of us. I don’t know how, it must have been the adrenaline, but after it was over I managed to push the wall off of me and my children. My husband stayed behind trying to help the students. We could hear some of them, but we couldn’t find them.”
She was a nervous wreck. She was worried about her husband, as well as the students she had grown to love, and she also knew that as the housing directors, it was their responsibility to help the students in this time.
“Do you think you could watch –“
“Yes, go,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”
I don’t know how long she was gone. It was a good while. Maybe an hour, if I had to guess. One of them, or perhaps both, had soiled themselves. But with nothing to do, I just sat down on the floor with Sophia in my lap and Isaac leaning against me, with my arm wrapped around him. I remember praying that the kids were too young to understand. Sophia certainly was. She didn’t cry the entire time. Most of the time she just stared, but obviously not looking at anything. Occasionally she would bury her face in my chest. Isaac cried softly and whimpered as I held my arm around him, patting his shoulder and telling him it was okay. Mom and Dad would be back soon.
Suddenly Isaac said. “Our home is gone. Where are we going to sleep?” and he began to cry in earnest. It was the first painful stab I felt that night. He wasn’t young enough. He was processing it. And it was terrifying him.
“Mom and Dad will find a place,” I told him. “It may be a hotel, or it might be a friend’s house, but they’ll come with you. You’ll be fine.”
“Do you think people are dead?” Second pain stabbed me. I couldn’t see how it was possible people weren’t. And this may sound odd, but I have never felt comfortable lying to children. Fortunately, I could honestly say what I did: “Not that I know of. Everyone I’ve seen is walking. They’re hurt a little, but they’ll be okay.” Quickly, to stop him from asking more questions, I pulled out my phone. “You like dogs, right?” Even Sophia suddenly perked up at this. “Let me show you my dog.” And I spent the rest of our time showing them pictures of my pets growing up and telling them every funny story I could remember about them.
I was relieved when both of their parents suddenly showed up. “Thank you, Eric,” they said as they took their kids back. “No problem,” I said. “Everyone okay?” The housing director grimaced. “So far, yes. But we can’t reach all of them. They are getting machines to pull up the debris on those buried too deep for us to reach.”
We walked out outside. The children’s grandparents were waiting to take them to their house. “See, Isaac,” I said with a smile. “I told you your Mom and Dad would find a place to sleep.” He smiled and went to his grandmother. But as she tried to pick him up to put him in the car, he stopped and turned back to me. “Where are you going to sleep?”
That was probably the only happy part of the night for me. I was touched that a boy so young was worried for others. “Oh, I’ll find someplace,” I said, not having a clue. “But go on. I’ll see you all later.”
When they drove away, shock finally sank in. Up to this point, I had always had something to do. Now, I had time to think. And my mind quickly became overwhelmed. Before I even got back in the building, I had called my Mom again but lost all ability to speak with any sophistication.
“Mom, I’m okay still. But it’s bad here.”
“Do you need me to come down there?”
“No… you couldn’t do anything anyway (she lived 5 hours away – and she would come the next morning when she saw the news).”
“Well, try to find your cousin, Kevin. He hasn’t called Bob and Sue, and they are freaking out.”
I never did find Kevin. But three different people, all separately, told me they saw him in the same place (the science building) and that he was fine. It’s embarrassing to remember, but I left him a nasty voice message on his cell phone, telling him to call his parents. “They think you’re buried in one of the buildings, man!” He was. To this day, I have never asked him if he ever got that voicemail. I hope he didn’t.
That night, I finally lost all control from the home of a retired professor. I watched over and over the press conferences as our president, Dr. Dockery, gave updates. Tears began streaming down my face, wondering how many of my friends I would next see in a casket – and then wondering how many would be closed caskets because of how bad their injuries would be.
I was not the only one. Dr. Dockery had been told by the firemen to leave. When he refused, they pulled him aside. “I know you think your responsibility is here, but parents are going to be calling soon, and so will the media. Based on how many students were in these buildings and the level of destruction, we are estimating 200 dead. We’ve already warned the hospitals to focus on the ones that can still be saved. You need to think about what you’re going to tell all these people.”
Stunned, he did leave. But he did not prepare. He prayed. He prayed over and over, “Please, no deaths. Don’t let us lose a single student.” He prayed for hours on end. Occasionally stopping to give press updates and then went back. When he heard the last student had been pulled out alive, he praised God and made sure everyone knew it had been a miracle.
Thousands of students were in the dorms when 80% of them were destroyed, most completely, in an instant. Of those thousands, only 51 were hospitalized. Of those 51, only 12 (including my cousin) required extended hospital stays. Of all of that… ZERO died.
Those buried alive talked about couches that got blown right beside them as massive concrete slabs and beams fell that would have killed them had something else not been thrown right next to them the instant before. Others that barely made it into buildings talked about getting thrown around and somehow never having hit their head on anything.
I said at the beginning that my keys no longer unlock any doors. That was true. Instead, they unlock something far more precious. The memory of a when I witnessed God protect his people on a night where everyone else gave up. They believed hundreds would be dead. Not a single one died. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (and Nebuchadnezzar) saw God in the furnace. We found God in the Whirlwind.
-Eric Sparks II, Union University Class of 2011.
Sophomore residing in Barton 6, destroyed February 5, 7:02 PM by an EF-4 Tornado during the 2008 Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak.