To go forward, she had to go back to Jackson

Union alum returns to help clean up campus devastated by tornado

JACKSON, Tenn. — Crystal Bruno sat in silence after driving past the shadowy outlines of buildings with broken windows and collapsed roofs. She put her head on her arm and stared out the window into the dark.

“The more I think about it, the more I wonder why I came down here,” Bruno said. “Like ‘I’m here to save the day? Don’t worry?’ ”

Bruno graduated last May from Union University, a Christian liberal arts college about six hours from her Lexington home. She had trouble seeing the campus at night, but the buildings on the edge of campus appeared damaged even in the dark.

The tornado that cut through Union University was one of dozens that swept across the Southeast on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, killing 59 people and injuring others.

Bruno heard about the strength of the storms when a co-worker at UK’s Experiences in Undergraduate Research and Kreative Activities office told her what happened Wednesday morning.

Immediately she went to the computer to learn more about the tornado that hit Union’s campus, hitting about 80 percent of its residence halls and causing as much as $40 million in damages, according to the school. Another tornado had struck Union’s campus in 2002, the year before Bruno started as a freshman. No one was injured in that storm, though, and it left only about $2 million in damages.

Bruno began calling her friends in Jackson to make sure they were not among the students injured during the storm. No deaths were reported at Union, but about 50 people were sent to the hospital and some students had to be rescued from a collapsed dorm.

Her friends were all fine, but Bruno could not get what had happened off her mind.

“I didn’t feel guilty, but something like that, because the night before I slept like a baby, and so many people didn’t,” she said.

After two restless nights, Bruno packed her bags and left Friday to drive to Jackson, arriving around 11 p.m.

The next morning, she went to the university ready to volunteer.

The scene on campus was not as devastating as the initial news reports because cleanup efforts were well underway, but the view was still dramatically different from what she had seen as a student. The sides of some of the campus’ 13 dormitories had been torn off while others were reduced to piles of rubble.

The roof of Jennings Hall, the classroom building Bruno volunteered to clean, was partially caved in. She walked through the barely-lit halls and looked into each room. Some were almost untouched, while others were littered with insulation, ceiling tiles and shattered glass.

After cleaning for a few hours, Bruno walked across campus with other volunteers. The school was quiet — classes will not resume for at least a week, and most of the people who lived in the dorms were staying with family and friends. As she toured campus, she pointed out the buildings she remembered and where her old dorm room would have been if it were still standing.

Walking down the empty hallway of the student center, which was left untouched by the tornado, Bruno ran into an old friend, Union alumnus Josh Clarke.

Clarke, who is now an admission coordinator at the university’s pharmacy school, was in a dorm with friends as the tornado came through. After the storm passed, he ran outside and started looking for anyone trapped in the rubble.

“That was the hardest — the split second of time I had a choice to either freak out, or go on about my business and feel sorry and cry and not do anything good, or get a grip and pray and have God just kind of guide me,” Clarke said.

Clarke helped find injured students in the storm until paramedics and police took over, and he continued volunteering over the next few days.

“We will rebuild, and hand in hand with the community and with our friends and family and God, we’ll be back into it within a week,” Clarke said.

Near the student center, a line of students waiting to collect their salvaged possessions formed outside the gymnasium. One of the student volunteers in the group, Leah Littlefield, was watching TV in a friend’s dorm room when she heard that Jackson was under a tornado warning. Such warnings are common for Union, Littlefield said, so she didn’t take the storm too seriously at first. Then she heard the tornado coming.

She ran for the bathroom and about three feet from the door, she heard the window break. She dove on top of two other people, and one girl jumped on top of her. Debris flew over the girls through the open bathroom door.

“It just felt like the world was just being ripped apart,” she said. “I felt like at any second everything would be ripped apart and we would be gone.”

When the storm passed, Littlefield and about 10 of the women from her building found that a metal staircase had fallen and blocked the door leading out of the dormitories. After they climbed across steel beams and fallen trees to get to a safer place, Littlefield could not stop thinking about what had just happened.

“I couldn’t even sleep that night,” she said. “I was awake, because every time I would close my eyes, I would relive the moment.”

On Saturday, Bruno walked with her shoulders slumped past students like Littlefield, who were there to volunteer or get their belongings. After three nights without sleep, Bruno was exhausted.

“I think if I weren’t here, I don’t know necessarily I would have been missed because it was so little — you know, picking up trash with my hands,” Bruno said after sitting down on a bench in the student center. She paused for a minute, and a smile formed at the corner of her mouth.

“Whether or not I made an impact on helping Union recover, that’s up for debate,” she said. “But it helped myself recover, and helped my friends recover and get back to some level of normalcy. I think, yeah, it’s definitely been worth it.”