JACKSON, Tenn. – March 17, 2008 – Rebecca Hartfield had one fireman in particular she wanted to see. The only problem was, she didn’t know what he looked like.
“Did you kiss me on the head and tell me it was going to be all right?” Hartfield asked Captain Robert Layman.
“Yes, I did,” Layman replied.
Hartfield, a Union University junior, responded by hugging him tightly.
She was one of 11 Union students who visited the Jackson fire station on Vann Drive March 14 for a reunion with the firefighters who saved their lives on the night of Feb. 5, when a tornado destroyed much of Union’s student housing.
The students and firefighters looked at photos together and shared stories of the night’s events.
About 15 students were trapped under collapsed buildings that night – some for as long as five hours. Jackson firefighters arrived on the scene only minutes after the tornado hit, and rescued every student who was buried.
Fifty-one students went to the hospital that night with injuries. Two students – Matt Kelley and David Wilson – remain in the hospital with injuries they sustained that night. Jason Kaspar, the last of the Union students pulled from the debris, was on hand for the reunion, still on crutches.
“We got to you as quick as we could,” Captain Johnny Brantley told the Union students during the reunion. “We had a lot of stuff to dig through. We appreciate you hanging on.” The Union students introduced themselves to the firemen, some of whom they didn’t recognize by appearance, but only by voice.
“Thank you very much,” Union junior Kellie Roe told the firefighters. “You guys saved our lives, and we will forever be grateful.”
Sophomore Kevin Bradley was one of seven men trapped in the restrooms in the Watters commons building. He described hearing the voices of the firemen who worked to free him.
“That was like the first sound of hope we had really gotten that night,” Bradley said. Union Provost Carla Sanderson presented the firefighters with a plaque containing photographs of the night’s events and a certificate of appreciation. She described the firemen as “angels on our campus that night.”
“We are indeed grateful, not for just what happened that night, but for the years of preparation and giving your life in service to this work,” Sanderson said. “We recognize that without God’s hand working through your lives, our students would have perished. That is a humbling thing to think about.”
Brantley said in 25 years of work, the Feb. 5 disaster at Union was the worst he had seen.
“For kids to come out as alive as they were, I thought, ‘It’s a miracle,’” he said.
As firefighters were working to rescue the Union students, Brantley remembers getting a call that he had a five-minute window before another severe storm would pass through. He considered aborting the rescue operation in an attempt to get his workers to safety.
“You’ve got to protect who’s working to save what you’re working on,” Brantley said. “But I couldn’t stop.”
Layman said he was shocked when he arrived on the scene that night and observed the collapsed buildings.
“My mind was not prepared for that at all,” Layman said. “I literally thought that we were probably looking at hundreds of body recoveries.”
Fireman Matt Gay worked to rescue Danny Song that night. The firemen had removed everything they could from where Song was trapped, but a bundle of 2-by-4 boards across his back kept Song pinned down and prevented him from sliding out. Gay didn’t want to cut that bundle, because he thought it might be holding up the concrete slab above Song – and removing that support would have meant certain death for both him and Song.
Song was becoming unresponsive, and Gay was out of options. So he decided to make the cut. The concrete slab stayed put, and Danny was free.
“I won on that gamble,” Gay said. “But I wouldn’t want to make that gamble many times.”