By Kimberlee Hauss
Buried under tons of rubble for what seemed like an eternity, David Wilson could not foresee the blessings that would come from such destruction; he was just trying to stay alive.
However, after four and half grueling hours of lying with his knees in his chest, pinned under the wall of a collapsed building, praying for someone to rescue him, he never lost hope.
Standing amidst the wreckage of a devastated campus after an EF-4 tornado struck Union University on Feb. 5, 2008, the Union community had no idea how God would provide in the days ahead.
Three years later, one class remains to tell the story of how God turned tragedy into triumph. Each member of the class of 2011 has a unique story from that night. For Wilson, senior chemistry major, the memory of the tornado is a constant testimony to the grace of God in sparing his life.
He, along with six other Union students, had been trapped in the Watters Commons’ bathrooms when the tornado struck campus.
Jordan Thompson, a December 2010 Union graduate and Wilson’s soccer teammate, was trapped with him and the first one rescued.
Thompson said, “Everyone thought at some point we were all going to die, but (David) was definitely encouraging us, saying, ‘It’s OK, God’s with us down here. Whether or not we get out, we’re going to be OK.’”
When firefighters pulled Wilson from the rubble, they rushed him to the intensive care unit at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. Doctors immediately began treating him for kidney and respiratory failure and compartment syndrome in his legs.
When the wall crashed in on Wilson and forced him to the ground in a fetal position, blood eventually stopped flowing to his legs. The lack of circulation caused his body to produce toxins to try to compensate. However, the toxins shut down his kidneys and made his legs swell.
He was put on dialysis and underwent fasciotomies, surgical procedures that relieve pressure and tension from the muscles and drain fluid from the legs. Doctors sliced open his legs in eight different places and drained fluid out continuously for eight days before closing the incisions.
Kevin Bradley, a May 2010 Union graduate and another teammate who was trapped next to David, said his legs had swollen up to four times their original size the day after the tornado. The procedure was a “last ditch effort” to prevent amputation.
Back on campus, faculty and staff were praising God for protecting students from what could have been a life-taking tornado. However, while every student survived, damages to the physical campus were devastating.
The campus sustained damages that cost more than $40 million to repair or rebuild. The tornado destroyed 125,000 square feet of space and damaged an additional 125,000 square feet in building not destroyed.
“We came within an eyelash of losing the entire institution,” said Dr. David S. Dockery, university president, in an interview. “But, by God’s grace, we have been sustained and given a new opportunity. We have been grateful for the good things that the Lord has brought our way on the other side of the storm.”
Just as Union, under the leadership of Dockery, testified of God’s providence through the storm – David’s attitude during the days, months and now years of his long recovery, constantly pointed others to Jesus Christ.
“The way David Wilson recovered, the way he reacted, literally led people to Christ,” Thompson said.
Another teammate, Chris Lean, a May 2007 graduate, stayed at the hospital with Wilson and saw how he and his family handled the news about his legs and his kidneys.
“They told us that I would never walk. I would never be able to have a job. I would never work,” Wilson said. “I would spend the rest of my life on pain medicine.
“I just had to hope in Christ that things would get better.” He said he tried to have the mental state, “this is what it is, so let’s go get it.”
After eight days, Wilson was transported from the Jackson hospital to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, his hometown.
“The day they were transporting him,” Bradley said, “Chris literally sprinted up to him and said, ‘I just wanted you to know that your faith and your testimony have shown me that God isn’t just some story that my parents have told me all my life. He’s real and he’s the Savior.’”
Bradley said he knows of at least one other teammate who prayed to receive Christ as a result of Wilson’s influence.
Wilson remained in the hospital for 67 days and continued intensive rehabilitation through August 2008. He progressed from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane, and then to a brace. A year and a half later, Wilson defied doctors’ predictions when he walked without assistance and quit taking pain medication.
“He obviously put his faith in the Lord,” Thompson said. “He was a rock before, but his testimony now has led … others to Christ.”
As the media interviewed many Union students about the tornado, Wilson had the opportunity to share his story with every local television channel, the weather channel, and major TV networks. He always gave the glory to God. He traveled all over the country, while still recovering, to speak to groups and churches.
“As he was telling the story, it wasn’t really about him,” Bradley said. “He really used it to share about his faith and what God had done in his life personally.”
Although Wilson endured excruciating pain at times and faced obstacles during his recovery, he said the stories of those who have prayed to receive Christ or been changed because of his testimony, have “made it worth it.”
Just as God used the tragedy of the tornado in Wilson’s life to bring about blessing, so he has in the life of Union University.
Instead of crippling the university, the destruction caused by the tornado led to the rebuilding and addition of about 330,000 square feet of space to the campus, including 17 residence life facilities and six other major building projects, Dockery said.
“Many of the newer and rebuilt facilities were a part of the dream that we had with our overall campus master plan, a 25-year plan approved by the Board of Trustees in December of 1997,” Dockery said. “We are about 50 percent of the way finished with that plan at this time. The storm could have interrupted that plan, but it did not. As a matter of fact, the residential life aspect of the plan was greatly accelerated.”
The enrollment pattern that has increased each fall from 1998 continued after the tornado as well.
The students in this year’s graduating class were freshmen when the tornado struck the university. In May, the last students who experienced the tornado firsthand will graduate.
“The story of the storm will become something that we will seek to tell the generations following as a reminder of God’s providential and sustaining grace in our moment of weakness, our time of need,” Dockery said.
As the class of 2011 graduates, changed lives continue to testify of how God prevailed through the storm.
“There’s really no limit to how many people God can use (through the story) to impact (lives),” Wilson said.