Tornado outbreak deadliest in 20 years

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Evidenced by homes reduced to rubble and loss of life, experts said the Feb. 5 outbreak of tornadoes that killed 55 people across the Southeast was the deadliest in more than 20 years.

One story of survival emerged from Savannah, Tenn., where an expectant mother and her husband knelt in a church as debris fell around them.

Brett Williams told The Jackson Sun that he and his wife Jennifer had been editing video of a church service at Sharon Baptist Church when they heard a noise that grew increasingly louder. When he went to the door to see what was happening, he was nearly pulled out by the wind. He led Jennifer, who is six months pregnant, to the center of the church where they huddled on their knees.

"Just as we knelt down, the ceiling tiles started falling down on us," Brett told the west Tennessee newspaper. "Everything in the building started moving, and it just swept us. All the chairs just started piling on top of us. ... It just protected us, really."

After about 20 seconds of turmoil, the winds calmed and Jennifer was able to call 911. Brett said they prayed for safety and wondered how deep they were buried in the rubble. First responders freed the couple within 15 minutes of arriving, The Sun reported, and they had only minor injuries. A doctor confirmed their unborn child was not harmed.

The Sharon Baptist worship center, a student center and two buildings that housed Savannah Christian Academy were destroyed. The church's pastor, Jerry Spencer, is a former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and former itinerant evangelist.

"The church building was destroyed," Allen Guyer, music minister at Sharon Baptist, told the Associated Press, "and we have a Christian school and preschool too -- all of that is completely gone. Some church members lost their homes, some went to the hospital; but everybody is all right."

President Bush was scheduled to visit Tennessee on Friday to get a firsthand look at the devastation and express support for the people who have been impacted. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen toured the campus of Union University in Jackson with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff Feb. 7 as workers began the long process of cleaning up debris.

Elizabeth Holmes of the Tennessee Baptist disaster relief office told Baptist Press Thursday around 2:30 Central that crews had not yet been allowed into Jackson or into Macon County in the northern part of the state.

In Savannah, Holmes said, there were two disaster relief chainsaw crews and some assessment workers on the scene but most homeowners were saying they were OK and were able to handle cleanup themselves.

On Thursday morning, a pair of Union students appeared on NBC's "Today" show to tell how God protected them through the tornado that destroyed or severely damaged buildings across the campus.

"We just felt God's hand of protection over us," Sarah Logan said. "When you look at the desolation and destruction on our campus and realize there were 1,200 students here and not one single fatality, you can't help but say that is a miracle and God was here protecting us."

Officials said the university was hit by an EF4 tornado, which came with winds of 166-200 mph.

Bredesen, the Tennessee governor, estimated 1,000 homes in the state were destroyed, according to a New York Times report, and much of the damage was caused by rare "long-track" tornados, which stay on the ground for distances of 30 to 50 miles. One tornado in Arkansas apparently left a path through five counties.


Compiled by Erin Roach, Baptist Press staff writer.

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