By Tim Ellsworth
Union News Office
JACKSON — Ten years ago, an EF-4 tornado ripped the Union University campus apart.
The campus sustained about $40 million worth of damages. The whirlwind destroyed buildings and dozens of students were injured in the storm.
But while the physical damage to the campus was extensive, the event also drew the campus community together as students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members regrouped and began the process of rebuilding what was lost.
On Feb. 2, Union University will mark the 10-year anniversary of the tornado that hit the campus on Feb. 5, 2008. Former administrators will return to campus for the event, which will include a chapel service and a community worship service featuring a free concert by Christian recording artist Phil Wickham.
“The 2008 tornado was a transformative event in the life of Union University,” Union President Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver said. “As we observe the 10-year anniversary, we offer our gratitude to the leaders who guided the institution through those difficult days, and we thank the Lord for His providence and protection for Union University that night.”
A Feb. 2 chapel service at 10 a.m. in the G.M. Savage Memorial chapel will include a testimony by Kimberly Thornbury, Union’s former vice president for student life, and an address by former Union President David S. Dockery.
Dockery was in his office shortly after 7 p.m. on the night of the tornado when he got a call saying the student housing apartments had been hit by the tornado.
“Students were coming out of the buildings — crying, confused, dazed, not knowing what had happened,” Dockery said. “And then we heard the words, ‘Students are trapped.’ At that point, we knew we were really in for something serious.”
Emergency workers labored for five hours to free students trapped under piles of debris. Though some students were seriously injured, there was no loss of life.
While rescue crews worked, Thornbury spearheaded an effort that saw about 1,000 Union students housed off-campus that night, thanks to the generosity of Jackson-area churches and other community members who came to campus to pick up those who had been dislodged.
The disaster made national and international news, with interviews of Union students airing on countless news broadcasts.
“People were just overwhelmed that we were not dismayed, we were not demoralized, we were not depressed, but we were trusting in God to help us and to care for us to be able to take another step,” Dockery said. “We began to pray that morning that God would bring renewal out of rubble. God did something in the midst of that whirlwind that was something only God could do.”
Campus leaders quickly began working to assess the damage and figure out a way to save the semester — and the university as a whole. Classes resumed two weeks later, and by the fall semester, 14 new residential housing units had been rebuilt.
The 10-year anniversary will also feature a special recognition ceremony for first responders at 1:30 p.m. and a community worship service at West Jackson Baptist Church at 7 p.m. Gene Fant, a former Union administrator and now president of North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C., will speak at the service, and a panel of students who were injured during the tornado will share some of their experiences.
The evening will conclude with the Wickham concert. Wickham is known for such songs as “This Is Amazing Grace” and “Your Love Awakens Me.”
“The concert is one small way we can say ‘thank you’ to the Jackson and West Tennessee community for the way so many people came to Union’s aid that night,” said Catherine Kwasigroh, Union’s vice president of advancement. “We invite the entire community to join us Feb. 2 for this significant event in the life of the university.”
Tickets to the community worship service and Wickham concert are free, but they must be reserved in advance. Ticket reservations and a full schedule for the day are available at www.uu.edu/tornado. B&R