MARTIN, Tenn. - 2/19/2008 - By: Matthew Maxey, Assistant Athletic Communications Director at UT Martin
As they made their way outside, from makeshift first-floor bathroom bunkers, members of Union University's softball team were unprepared for the scene upon them. At first it was too dark to see, but their ears told enough of the story for them to understand -- their much-cherished and close-knit community was in utter disarray. Car alarms sounded off from every corner of the campus. Panicked voices called out into the darkness, "Are you okay?" "Is anyone hurt?"
Then, as rescue crews arrived, sirens screaming, the emergency vehicles' rotating red bulbs revealed the rest of the story: 40 percent of the campus's buildings destroyed; another 40 percent badly damaged; 51 students rushed to the hospital; and close to 85 percent of cars on campus wrecked or totaled.
The 14-member softball team had been spread across three different dormitory buildings the night of Tuesday Feb. 5, when an F-4 tornado with winds of up to 260 mph decimated their Jackson, Tenn. campus. When the players emerged from the rubble of their dorms, their immediate thoughts centered on their friends and teammates. Where are they? Are they okay?
Once they learned everyone was safe, their minds moved to other questions. Will I still be able to graduate in May? What about our season? Will we even have a softball season?
The scene was much more subdued Sunday night, 52 miles to the north, as the softball team, together for the first time since the tornado, piled out of a line of cars in front of Browning Hall, on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin.
"It was so sad to see them get of those cars with their Union University pullovers on, some of them in their own cars, some of them in cars they'd rented," says Debbie Dane, wife of Phil Dane, the director of athletics at UT Martin.
The Danes met first-year Union head softball coach Heather Hall and her team at Browning Hall to help them unload and move in. They also gave each player a welcome basket filled with goodies -- Gatorade, granola bars, popcorn, toiletries, boxes of Valentine's Day cards, Frisbees -- donated by members of the UT Martin athletic department, housing staff and the Danes' church, the First Baptist Church in Martin.
"When I knew the girls were coming to campus I thought, we need to get some welcome baskets to roll out the red carpet for them," says Debbie.
Hall says, "I had to try and find a place where everybody could be together, because I really wanted everybody to be together so we could, not just start practices because that's really secondary, but just be together as a team and a group and kind of reconnect."
She adds, "I knew they would be a good support system for each other because they all had been through something really traumatic."
A native of Prince Edward Island, Canada, Hall had been a graduate assistant softball coach at UT Martin for two years before landing the job at Union. She continued to live in Martin and most of her connections were still in the Martin area. Hall began working those connections almost as soon as she knew all her players were okay.
"That was my major concern, making sure everyone was okay and accounted for," says Hall.
The tornado struck Union at about 7 p.m.; it wasn't until after 10 p.m. that Hall learned all her players were unhurt.
"I wanted to cry, but I just had to get in touch with everybody, so I just headed for my phone and started calling all the girls and making sure they were all safe."
Hall had watched the drama unfold on TV from her home in Martin.
"It was a really horrible feeling of being helpless. I'm all the way here, everyone's down there," she says.
Initially Hall had arranged for her team to stay in a 4-bedroom rental house in Dresden, Tenn., a neighboring town of Martin. Then on Friday she called her former employer to see about getting some practice time in the Elam Center gym for her team.
Dane and Gina McClure, director of campus recreation, marked off time in the gym the following week for Hall's team. With the help of Phyllis Hammer, campus recreation's administrative assistant, they also began collecting items Hall had mentioned she would need for the house - beds, a TV and toilet paper.
Still brainstorming over the weekend about how he could help Hall and provide her team with everything they needed, Dane says his wife Debbie suggested looking into dorm rooms on campus. The dorm rooms would be fully furnished, give the team more space and be much more convenient for getting back and forth to practice. Dane immediately called UT Martin's housing director Earl Wright, who said he had seven rooms available in Browning Hall.
Since Sunday night, the Union softball team has stayed in Browning Hall, eaten in UT Martin's dining hall, and conducted workouts and practices in UT Martin's athletic facilities.
"I am glad that coach Hall felt like she could call on her former co-workers for help when she needed it," says Dane. "We are more than glad to do all we can to help coach Hall and the Union team while they are in need."
Hall says it has been both convenient, and cathartic, for her team to be in a university setting again. But it hasn't only been UT Martin that has helped Hall and her team get going again this week.
Ken-Tenn Sports in Martin donated 14 pairs of indoor training shoes to the team, most of whom didn't have any shoes to practice in. Full Count Sports Academy, a private baseball/softball training facility in Martin, made time for the team to come and hit in its cages throughout the week. The City of Martin's Park and Recreation Department also offered its softball complex and fields for the team to practice outdoors.
"The community around here in Martin has helped tremendously and has made this transition so much better," says Hall.
UT Martin head softball coach Donley Canary has also played a role in welcoming the Union softball team to campus. The day after the tornado struck, he called his former assistant Hall, to see if there was anything he could do to help. This week he and his wife Jenny had the team over for dinner and gave the players socks and sweatshirts.
"I'm glad the Union softball team has been able to continue to train and practice this week," says Canary. "If you don't do anything for two weeks you lose all your conditioning."
Indeed the Union softball team is thankful for the abundance of practice time it has had. The Lady Bulldogs' season begins next week, Feb. 21, in a home exhibition double-header against Jackson State Community College. Serendipitously, the softball and baseball fields were left untouched by the tornado. In fact the tarp covering the baseball field didn't even budge.
"After the initial shock wore off, we began to think of whether or not we would have a season," says senior team captain Candace Cross. "But the athletic facilities were some of the only buildings on campus not hit. With the facilities still being intact, we are able to see that we could still have a season, but that it will still be a difficult road emotionally."
Even so, the team is generally feeling positive about the upcoming season.
"The storms and what we have been through have changed the team," says junior outfielder Kristen Kirk, from Bolivar, Tenn. "In just this short time it has brought us closer. We expect it to continue bringing us closer and hopefully by the end of the season we will be able to look back at this as a building point in our season. It has definitely bonded us together."
One thing is for sure, anything the team might face on the field will pale in comparison to the adversities they faced in real-life Tuesday night last week.
That night, Kirk, Cross, another teammate and three friends sat crouched on the floor in a first-floor bathroom while outside cars were being flipped, trees were being flattened, and buildings were being ripped apart. As the tornado touched ground, their ears popped, the floor rolled and the walls shook.
"It was so loud," says Brittany Burkett, a sophomore infielder from Eads, Tenn., who was hiding in the bathroom of another dormitory nearby.
In the bathroom where Kirk and Cross had sought shelter, a two-by-four came smashing through the wall over the bathtub, just six inches above the heads of two girls who had huddled in the tub.
When all six girls stumbled out of the bathroom unharmed, broken debris and glass littered the floor. The living room they had just been sitting in, doing homework and getting ready to watch American Idol, was gone. The outside wall had been torn away and they could see straight outside.
"Nothing we could have done could have prevented that night from happening and only the grace of God got us through it safely. He spared each of us for a reason and one day we will learn what that reason is," says Kirk.
"The grace of God is what got us through that night," agrees Cross. "Through that experience I learned that if you trust him to watch over you, he will, and that is exactly what he did."
Cross, a nursing student from Lebanon, Tenn., immediately began helping those she encountered with minor injuries, as she and the rest of the campus gathered in the Savage Memorial Chapel of the Penick Academic Complex. Cross, along with teammate and fellow nursing student Michelle Albonetti worked triage in the immediate aftermath and together were able to help treat more than 25 injured students.
The Union softball team displayed its grit and bravery that night, strengths the team hopes to transfer to the diamond this season. Hall also hopes to build on the team unity and solidarity that has developed in the days since last Tuesday, for a successful 2008 campaign and her inaugural season as head coach.
"I think our whole season is really going to be well-focused and driven," says Hall. "It's a wonderful bunch of 14 girls that work together and strive for excellence."
Hall also knows that any success her team experiences this season will be due in part to the help they received from UT Martin and the surrounding community.
"It's just been a really open community, in Martin," says Hall. "Everybody has helped work around us, and has made us feel very comfortable."
"Our success this season is going to be success for everybody, because everybody has contributed and helped us."
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