Feb. 5, 2008 is a day I will always remember. I was a freshman at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. My roommates and I had just decorated our dorm room — we had apartment-style dorms with a living room, kitchen, bathroom and four individual bedrooms — and I was just getting into the groove of my second semester classes.
I remember getting a call from my dad when I was at lunch that unseasonably warm day. It was unusual for him to call at that time of day, but he was just saying hello and telling me to watch the weather. Things might get bad in my neck of the woods later.
I remember walking to my dorm, loving the sun. My friends and I talked about how nice it was outside.
I remember hearing several knocks at the door as girls from upstairs and across the complex came to our room as the weather started to get bad. The dorm building across the complex had a tendency to flood when it rains hard, one of the girls explained.
I remember noticing the wind picking up. Reports from Memphis were coming in. It didn't look pretty. We decided to move to the room at the corner of the building, which was unoccupied. It didn't have windows — you know, just in case the wind throws something our way. The RA had a key, so the 20-or-so of us filed in.
I remember my friend Beth saying if the drains start to suck in, a tornado is on the way. Not a minute later, the girl standing in the bathroom said something about the sink sucking in. At that same moment, the RA — who had been looking out the front door — turned around with terror in her eyes and told us to get into the bathroom.
I remember being one of the last ones in the bathroom because I went to deadbolt the front door. Because that would keep a tornado out.
I remember all of us huddled in the bathroom. My friend Jess asked why we went in a bathroom with a window. There are no windows in the bathrooms on Union's campus. The wall was gone and she was being rained on. The only thing between us and the outside was the thin plastic side of the tub.
I remember rubbing the back of the girl next to me. She was crying. Someone starting singing "Amazing Grace." We joined in, trying to pray, drown out the sound of debris and ignore the furniture flying around the room. All the doors — including the one I dead-bolted — were flapping open and shut with the storm.
I remember it stopping. I looked down and a cinderblock was sitting next to me to my right. The wall it came from was to my left. I don't know how it didn't hit me.
I remember walking back to our room, handing out shoes to the girls who were wearing flip-flops and slippers. My shoes were too small for anyone else. I put on my bright green rain boots. I still have them somewhere, but the left boot is patched with bright green duct tape. I stepped on something that night that sprung a leak, but I can't seem to throw the boots away.
I remember firemen coming to the door, telling us we had to go to the commons building. There was a gas leak and we were in danger. Glass covered the floor of the commons and we huddled under the stairs until we were told to move again. It was still too dangerous and we were told to walk across campus to White Hall, the science and nursing building. Oh, and another line of storms was coming, so we had to hurry.
I remember thinking everything seemed so surreal. It was a like a scene from a movie — greenish dark skies, red and blue lights from emergency vehicles piercing through. Power lines down. Cars flipped over, some thrown into buildings.
I remember moving from White Hall to the Penick Academic Complex, the main building on campus. The nursing students were using White Hall as a triage center and the administration was trying to get everyone together to see who was safe, who was hurt and who missing.
I remember seeing one of my friends on our way to the PAC. He was a student photographer for the university and was taking photos of the storm and the chaos. I told him to go inside and he said he'd be safe but he had a job to do. I understand what he said now that I am a journalist, but I didn't understand it that night.
I remember talking to my parents and then letting my friends call their parents on my cell phone. Mine was the only one working consistently.
I remember getting into a van with five of my friends. People from the community had come to campus to pick up students and give us a place to stay. I don't know whose house I stayed at that night, but I do remember watching CNN as they showed live footage of my campus. My friends and I were trying to spot our cars in the rubble.
I remember calling my best friend. "Are you watching the news?" I asked. Luckily, she said no. I told her not to turn it on yet. My school had been hit by a tornado. I was safe and at a stranger's house. It looks bad. She turned on the TV and started crying. "But I'm okay. I'm safe," I kept repeating.
I remember the next day, the six of us packing back into the stranger's van to meet our parents at a Mexican restaurant. My mom and dad drove up from Atlanta as soon as the weather had passed. When they saw me, my dad asked how I was and if I had anything with me. There I was, standing in a borrowed hoodie, tattered jeans and leaking rain boots. I pulled my dead phone and the toothbrush the nice stranger had purchased for me that morning out of the front pocket of the hoodie. Dad gave me a dollar so I had something else.
I remember standing in line at the Chi Omega house to get an escort so I could go check out my car. Miraculously, it was in one piece! The cars around it were flipped and windows were shattered, but mine was fine other than the scratched paint. I did a happy dance in the parking lot.
The next few weeks were insane. We learned it was an EF4 tornado that had destroyed part of our campus. Many of my friends lost everything that had been in their dorms. I got a lot of my stuff back, but not things like the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls my grandmother made me. Classes were obviously postponed, but the administration did an amazing job at working with students to give us a chance to recover while making sure seniors could graduate in a timely manner.
I was in Atlanta before classes started back up. The insurance/body shop guy I had to go to to get my car repainted asked me what happened to scratch it up so bad. When I told him I was a student at Union University and we were hit by a tornado he said, "Hm, must not have been a big deal. I didn't hear about it." Dad put his hand on my shoulder, reminding both of us to keep our cool.
Feb. 5 has never been the same. I think of my friends. I think of Union's President David Dockery, the administration and my teachers who risked their lives that night to save students who were trapped under rubble.
No one died that night. Some students went to the hospital, and I believe four had to stay for an extended period of time because of their injuries. But no one died. That, in and of itself, is a miracle.
On Feb. 5, I remind myself that I am alive. I remind myself that the kindness of strangers, the support of friends and the leadership of Union University have played huge rolls in my life. I remind myself of the power of wind and rain and how it should not be overlooked.
Most of all, I remind myself that "Amazing Grace" isn't just a song to me. I believe God showed our campus amazing grace and protection that night. To me, "Amazing Grace" is a comfort in storms of all sizes. It is a truth I will never forget.