by David Young
Angels performing ballet. Unbelievable, I thought. This can’t be real.
I was lying on my side wrapped around a tree like a koala bear looking straight up into the eye of an F-4 tornado. And the debris at the top of thefunnel looked just like angels gracefully performing ballet.
How ironic. Those few seconds in the eye of the tornado may have been the most peaceful seconds of my life. It felt transcendental and sweet. That is, until the back wall of the tornado slammed against me, hurling two-by-fours, trees, and sheet metal at 200 miles per hour. Here I was caught on the trail in the middle of a tornado.
It was Good Friday, and my mind was distracted. A minister for a large church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a few miles south of Nashville, I was thinking about the Easter program that had required so much preparation over the last several months. I should have been thinking about the Resurrection itself, but I confess that, instead, I was obsessing over the details of the upcoming service. We were hoping for 2,000 people at church, and there were so many things that could go wrong. It had been an exhausting week of preparation, and I just kept going over the program in my head. What I needed, I decided to myself, was a good workout.
I hardly paid attention to the weather reports this Good Friday. The broadcasts since last night had indicated that storms were expected to blow across Middle Tennessee around lunchtime. At around 11:00 that morning a local traffic reporter had warned Nashville to eat lunch early because of approaching storms. A tornado warning had even been issued 60 miles northwest of Nashville. Most people knew to stay off the trails for the next several hours. I should have known too. But I really needed to run, and somehow I convinced myself that the storms were all north of Murfreesboro.
I’ve been a runner all my life, though I rarely run competitively. I mostly run to manage my weight, to relieve stress, and to talk to God. Last fall I had trained for a marathon, but two weeks before the event, I accidentally swallowed a fish bone and ended up spending a week in the hospital with abdominal surgery for an acute abdominal infection. Recovery after that had been slow, and I was down from running 35 to 40 miles per week to running 15 miles or so. I was determined to build back up to a respectable distance.
Today was going to be a good run. In spite of the warnings, the weather felt great: mid 60’s and overcast. My energy level was up. My motivation was high. It was my day off, Easter was approaching, and I was eager to run off some stress. I intended to spend time in prayer, which I do in the form of an inner dialogue with God pretty much every time I run. My prayers sometimes take the form of memorizing Scripture or merely offering thanksgiving. More frequently, however, they take the form of character discussions with God. I talk to God about my weaknesses, and together we develop strategies for helping me to mature. I often preach to myself as I run, lecturing myself on the need to be stronger, more disciplined, and more like the One I follow.
I drove to my favorite running spot, a paved greenway that meanders four and a half miles along the Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Stones River is a small river, but it has a big history. It was here that one of the largest battles in the Civil War was fought a century and a half ago. Ninety thousand soldiers slugged it out on New Years Eve 1862 and on New Years Day 1863, as Federal troops continued their slow push towards Chattanooga, and, eventually, Atlanta, Savannah, and the Atlantic Ocean. A hundred yards from where I parked my car on Good Friday the battle had ended on January 2, 1863, as thousands of Confederate troops forded the frigid river and tried to climb the western bank, only to be slaughtered by Federal canon, canister, and grapeshot. Twenty-three thousand soldiers fell fighting for this river.
The modern greenway was opened in the 1990s and is a popular place for the people of Murfreesboro. Any given day you can find people walking their dogs, bicycling, strolling with friends, fishing, or running. When I parked my car and began my run, it was a couple minutes after noon, and there were several others on the trail walking. I had run six miles on the treadmill the day before, so I planned to keep it to a gentle four miles today. I was wearing a headset, a white headband, my favorite running shorts, and a new rain jacket.
The rain jacket was important, because I had just bought it in response to a near disaster that my buddy, Thad, and I had experienced backpacking a couple months before. We are winter backpackers, because we don’t like heat. We had gone up into the Smoky Mountains on a four-day backpacking trip back in February. It rained the whole way up the mountain on the first day. We arrived at camp just as the darkness came and as the temperature dropped to dangerous levels. A windstorm suddenly blew in, and all my raingear failed. By the time Thad managed to build a fire (against all odds), I was slipping into hypothermia in the freezing temperatures. I couldn’t stop shivering, and for ten minutes or so, I hovered as near to panic as I’ve ever been. By the next morning, I was mad at myself for being so ill prepared after years of winter backpacking. I was even angrier with myself for feeling panicked.
When I got home, I decided to buy the best raingear I could afford, but I also decided that, of all people, a minister ought not to panic, regardless of the circumstances. I began to talk to God about trust, and I began to read about others who had survived extreme circumstances. I looked inward and asked myself whether or not I have what it takes to manage an extreme situation. I have the kind of brain that can obsess over such matters (I get that from my dad, and I’ve passed it on, I’m sorry to say, to my son). So, I began to role-play disasters in my head every single day. I began to tell myself, every day for the last couple months, that I will never go down without a fight. I made a commitment to God and to myself that I will stay calm if ever confronted with disaster. I will trust God, act smart, and be a man. For me, this commitment was not an act of strength; it was a confession of weakness.
So, even as I left my car for my four-mile run, I wore my new rain jacket thinking about the severe weather I had endured in the mountains a few months before. As I approached the trail I mumbled something to God about the possibility of rain: let it rain, God. Together, we’re strong. Before the hour was over, the jacket wouldn’t make much difference, but the commitment to be a survivor helped me make just the right moves. Through my commitment to be calm God probably saved my life.
The first two miles of my run were uneventful. I wasn’t in a hurry, so I was clipping along at about six miles per hour. At the end of the second mile, I made a u-turn to begin working my way back to the car. As soon as I turned around, a gentle rain began to fall. I pulled my hood over my head and kept going. Thank you, Lord, I continued in my fixation, for my new rain jacket.
After several minutes, however, the sky began to look ominous, and it began to hail. I kept running, but I noticed that nobody else was anywhere near the greenway. I was on the most popular part of the trail all alone. Being alone gave me an eerie feeling — did everyone else know something that I didn’t know?
The hail continued to fall, but the hailstones were not that large, maybe the size of dimes. I was surprised that it didn’t hurt when the hail hit my body. I can run in this, I thought.
When the lightning started, however, I grew cautious. The first few lightning strikes were a mile or two away (I counted the time between the flash and the sound). Within a minute or two, however, the lightning was right overhead. I was in trouble, and I knew it.
I had been thinking about survival in extreme circumstances every day for two months. Here is my first test, I thought. Lightning may strike near me, but I can beat it if I position myself in the right place. I’m going to get a real test of my new survival skills, I thought. Okay, Lord, let’s test my commitment. I was actually pumped.
The first mile marker on the Stones River Greenway lies directly behind Thompson Lane—a heavily traveled road in Murfreesboro lined with businesses, offices, an auto garage, gas stations, and apartments. The parking lots of two of these businesses, the Greenway Office Building and the Stampede Saloon look down on the trail, which is about 15 feet below, but separated by a jumble of trees and bushes. From the trail to the river is another 10-foot drop off, also separated by a jumble of trees and bushes. If it weren’t for the trees, you could probably throw a rock into the river from the parking lots above.
Across the river is an established neighborhood on a rise of another 20 feet or so. The houses in this neighborhood are some distance from the river, and separated by tall, majestic trees.
When the lightning began to strike overhead, I left the trail and climbed down the bank to within a few feet of the river, crouching beneath some bushes. I was careful to keep my feet together and plant my hands on the ground, so as to create a circuit in the event that lightning struck near me. I was actually feeling pretty smart, and I was confident that the storm would blow over in a couple minutes, leaving me feeling good about my survival instincts. I thanked God for keeping me calm. I remember watching a stream of water trickle down the side of the bank, creating tiny waterfalls over the leaves and mud before finally reaching the river. I remember being proud that my jacket was keeping the water out. No big deal, I thought. I’m going to be fine.
Suddenly, after four or five minutes, the rain and hail stopped. It was odd—the rain didn’t slow down; it just stopped, all of the sudden. After ten minutes of lightning, of rain, of wind and hail, the silence was disturbing. But, hey, I thought, at least the storm was over and I could continue running. I stood up to climb back onto the trail.
When I stood up, however, something didn’t seem right. To this moment I cannot say what I felt, but I knew in my gut that something was wrong. I don’t remember if the wind was blowing, and I don’t remember much of what the sky looked like. Actually, I couldn’t see much of the sky. I could see the trail, which was about eye level, and I could see the wooded slope leading up to the parking lots, but I couldn’t see the horizon beyond that. In the distance I heard a low rumble.
The L&N railroad runs pretty close to the greenway at mile one, but my gut told me that the rumble I heard was not a train. It sounded like a train … I mean just like a train, but somehow I knew that it wasn’t. So I stood there for a minute, maybe even more, listening and hoping the rumble wouldn’t get louder. But it did. It got much louder.
At this point, I feel like I should confess that I was terrified, but the truth is that I wasn’t really scared. Events were unfolding too quickly for me to feel much fear. Besides, I had been talking to God for forty minutes about my ability to survive in any circumstance. So, rather than fear, I felt this adrenaline rush and this intense sense of challenge—my survival skills are going to be tested, I thought. This will be good for me. I actually felt some bizarre sense of appreciation that God was going to allow my faith to be tested in an extreme way. I know it sounds crazy, but all I could think of was how I wanted to pay close attention to what happened next so I could learn more about survival to pass on to my church. I was thinking that after I survived, I would be able to share what I learned with others, and maybe help someone else survive. Don’t get me wrong— I was not thinking about glory or fame. Rather, I was thinking that this disaster would give me a great testimony about the power of God as well as giving me lessons on survival that I could share with others. I was thinking that I could write about the story and share it with other backpackers to help them develop survival skills. Ever the preacher, I was thinking that I could use my experience in sermons to encourage Christians to face cancer, loss, or even death with trust.
God will take care of me, I said to myself. I can survive. And I really believed it. I think I nervously giggled at the strangeness of the situation. I never once thought of death.
The rumble was very loud by now, and I heard cars honking, metal screeching, and transformers exploding. Dude, I said jokingly to myself, you’re in a tornado. This is even bigger than Backpacker Magazine. You’re gonna be on Oprah. It sounds flippant now, but at the time, humor was my way of staying in control of my emotions, and it worked. Panic is the number one killer in survival situations. Presence of mind, a sense of purpose, and even humor are often the very elements that determine who will live and who will die in the midst of a disaster. By talking to God, by looking for a lesson to be shared with others, and by kidding myself, I was able to stay calm and to act smart. By the grace of God, staying calm and acting smart probably kept me alive. When I heard the transformers exploding, I had five seconds to decide what to do.
I quickly looked around at the options. Bunches of trees, the river, a small dock built by the park service jutting out into the water. Nothing else. The nearest tree of size was a few feet away. I quickly wrapped my arms around it at the base, laid on the ground, curled my body around the trunk, and looked up to monitor the situation. I asked God to forgive me of my sins, then, mumbled something like “let’s get it on!”
Within two seconds I saw the first pieces of debris flying over me. They were topping the trees above the trail, coming from the direction of the parking lots. I was impressed by how much debris there was and how fast it was traveling. It looked like it had been shot from a canon.
Then I heard the cracking of wood; not a little bit, but the sound of an entire forest being split at once. It is not a sound that you can ever forget—wood from a whole forest violently exploding. If you can imagine ten thousand baseball bats being wildly broken at the same time, you will know what I heard. I checked my grip on the tree, and thought to myself, “Here she is!”
Immediately afterwards, I saw the wall of the tornado top the crest of the slope and slam into me. The sound was amazing, and the power incredible. Everything around me, including the ground, was shaking. I could feel my tree groaning as it was trying to leave the ground. The whole forest heaved. Debris was crashing all around me. Static electricity made my hair stand on end. I saw what appeared to be a house fly right over my head, past the river and off into the wild.
Though I had curled myself around the tree, the tornado picked up my legs and extended my body into the wind. I suppose my adrenaline was working properly, because I never lost grip of the tree, even though my body was now off the ground flapping in the wind like a flag. I never thought I’d lose my grip; I was determined that I would not fail this test. I wanted to make God proud of me. I kept thinking that I needed to document the experience in my mind so I could help others. I never closed my eyes.
The front wall of the tornado was bad, but when it passed, I found myself in the strangest world I’ve ever seen. I was in the eye of the tornado, and I knew it. I dropped back to the ground and instinctively curled around the tree again. A lot of debris was still shooting across the river, firing across my line of sight like meteors. But now I also saw debris spiraling inside the vortex of the tornado. Close to me, it was traveling at lightning speed, racing around and around just like you’d expect.
But farther up, along the inside of the funnel, the debris was moving slowly, gracefully, almost playfully at the top. It wasn’t circling; it was dancing, up and down more than from side to side. I don’t know how far up I could see, but it seemed like miles. A strange light illuminated the inside of the tornado. It was totally surreal. It was peaceful, calm, and, I hate to say it, incredibly happy. I fancied that angels were performing a ballet just for me at the top of heaven’s ladder. So this is what’s inside a tornado, I remember thinking.
It is not possible to describe the feelings you get in the eye of a tornado. There is such a mixture of primal feelings—blood pulsing, mouth drying, eyes focused, heart racing, muscles taut. Everything that has been you, in my case for 48 years, comes down to one infinite point and freezes; your breathing calms and your mind seems to step out of your body and look around in amazement. You notice the smallest details: a leaf blowing past, a small sound, the strange illumination inside the vortex. You watch the inside of the funnel as though you were watching a movie. There’s a strange sense of detachment.
And you feel, at the same time, both all alone and totally immersed in the love of God. I mean that literally. In the eye of the storm, there is no one else, and as far as you can tell, the entire world is now gone. Nothing looks familiar, and you sense that you have already died and gone to heaven. The peace, the beauty, and the overwhelming view up the vortex above all lead you to feel an intimacy with God. I felt loved in the eye, and even now that feeling moves me to tears. It’s like going to heaven and seeing the book of Revelation. It’s like waking up in Alice’s Wonderland, Deep Space, and your mother’s womb all wrapped into one. There is no yesterday, no tomorrow, and no worries. Just peace, calm and incredible beauty. In the eye of the storm, you may not even be you any more.
To be in the eye of the tornado is unforgettable. I want to say to anyone who has lost a loved one to a tornado that, chances are, your loved one died far more peacefully than you think. Inside the storm the love of God is more intense than you can ever, ever, ever imagine. It is calm, peaceful, and overwhelmingly safe. Your loved one died in the loving arms of God, and I guarantee you that they knew it.
Being in the eye makes you thankful to God, and I remember murmuring some words of gratitude, at least in my heart, if not with my mouth. I was thankful for the three seconds—or was it an eternity?—that I spent in the eye of that storm.
Grateful, that is, until the back wall of the tornado hit me. The front of the tornado had been violent, but the back was even worse. Best I can tell, the front of the tornado had picked up trees and broken off large branches. Now the back of the tornado began to drop them all around me. Debris was slamming everywhere. Though I had been in the tornado only 10 seconds or so, it already seemed like a long time. The peaceful feeling quickly dissipated; now I had to ride out the worst. I remember thinking, “almost over; hang on; you’re going to make it!”
Meanwhile, stuff was dropping all around me. Two trees fell on me; I saw the first one coming. I remember thinking it was odd because it fell backwards away from the river. Most of the debris was flying across the river. The trunk was probably 5 or 6 inches in diameter, and it landed on my left leg, just above my ankle (which was curled up behind my bottom). I saw it hit me, but didn’t feel anything. I think I was too pumped. Immediately afterwards, a second tree fell on me from above. I didn’t see this tree coming. When it landed, it was on top of my body, and must have hit my head, since later I would discover a deep gash above my left ear. I didn’t feel any pain.
Then, just as quickly as I saw the tornado come over the rise, I saw it cross the river and leave. The back of it looked almost like a curtain; it was distinct. You could see where it began and where it ended. I remember as it crossed the river water danced upward, like a million little dancing fountains in Las Vegas. I watched the tornado move up the opposite bank into the trees and towards the neighborhood behind the woods. Then it was gone.
For me, the storm was over. I lay there a little while to make sure that there was no residual debris following it. I couldn’t see much because of the trees on top of me, but I just kept thinking, “I survived! I’m a survivor! We did it, God!” I remember giggling and saying thank you to God over and over again.
As soon as I knew the storm was gone for sure, I wanted off the greenway fast. To get off, I had to climb out of the trees that were on top of me. It only took a moment.
But, when my head emerged from the top of the downed trees, I stopped in my tracks. There before me, where only 30 seconds before had been beautiful woods, lay the remains of a nuclear explosion. You’ve heard it before, but until you see the destruction caused by a tornado, there simply are no words to describe the view.
Everything was destroyed. The trees were twisted, mauled, tangled over the ground. Huge sheets of metal were wrapped around many of them. Two by fours with jagged nails were lying everywhere. Entire sections of buildings, roofs, glass, twisted pieces of who-knows-what were everywhere. I gulped and realized that this was serious. Very serious. If anyone else was in this storm, I realized, they were probably dead. From what I could see, I assumed that the entire city of Murfreesboro had been wiped out. My heart sank.
I couldn’t walk on the trail, either to the left or to the right, as the debris was piled ten or fifteen feet high. So I climbed through the debris up the slope towards the parking lots I knew were above me. It took only a few minutes (I was really, really motivated to get off that trail). When my head emerged above the slope, all I could see was devastation. A three-story office building to my left had lost the top floor and half of the second. Directly in front of me a pile of trailers was stacked 20 or 30 feet tall in a twisted, smoking pile of angry destruction. Live wires and cables were everywhere, as were trees, broken telephone poles, and tons of debris.
My first instinct was to run to the office building to check for survivors. I assumed that if anyone had been in the building, they were probably dead. It is hard to describe how bad it looked. As I began to walk, however, I stumbled. I didn’t realize that I had been hurt. My left leg was beat up badly, and the gash on my head was bleeding. I was wearing a white headband, and though I hadn’t seen any blood, it was filling with blood (as well as mud from the storm).
Circling in the parking lot were four immigrant workers. I don’t know why they were there; I assumed that they had been landscaping nearby and ran over to check the same building I wanted to check. When they saw me, their faces grew white. I could tell by the looks on their faces that I must have looked bad, though, again, I didn’t feel any pain. One of them ran towards me, and as I took a step towards him, I fell. I think I was in a mild form of shock, though I never lost my awareness. He picked me up, threw my arm over his shoulder, and carried me towards a couple of pickup trucks that were pulling up at that moment. I asked him his name, but we were both in such shock that I can’t remember if he even answered.
“We’ve got to go to that building and check for survivors.” That’s all I could say as several men gathered in the parking lot. One of them was a rescue squad responder, who was putting on a firefighter’s uniform as quickly as possible. “I’m going in with you,” I yelled out. “No, sir, you are going to the Emergency Room. You are hurt.” We argued for a few seconds, as he continued to put on his uniform. Finally he put his hand on my chest, as if to threaten me, and yelled. “You’re injured and you’re going to the Emergency Room right now. End of story.”
A couple of guys from a landscaping business had pulled up in their truck. Turning to these guys, he asked them if they would take me to the ER. “Of course,” one said. “Get in the back of the truck,” he ordered me. I must still have been pretty disoriented, because I stumbled around trying to figure out what he meant by “back of the truck.” I fell again, though I couldn’t figure out why I kept stumbling.
The truck had a double cab, and they put me in the back seat. As we hurried off towards the local hospital, we turned onto Haynes Drive, a heavily traveled road dissecting one of Murfreesboro’s largest clusters of neighborhoods, including my own. We got a couple miles before we saw debris on Haynes—terrible debris. Trees were down, huge chunks of houses were scattered across the road, telephone poles snapped in two. It looked horrible. Only later would I find out that a beautiful young woman and her nine-week-old baby had just been killed on Haynes Drive only a moment after the tornado had shaken me. Haynes Drive was completely blocked by mounds of wreckage. We had to find another route to the hospital.
We drove around for a few minutes trying to find a way to get through the neighborhood to the other side of town, where the hospital is located. The men who were driving me to the hospital were anxiously trying to call their family members, but most of the cell towers were jammed. We only managed to get a few calls through. Because my wife and kids were, unbeknownst to me, crouching in the back of a grocery store seeking shelter from the same tornado, which they saw from only a few yards away, they were unable to answer their phones. For thirty minutes, we were out of contact, but I wrongly assumed that they were safe far on the other side of town, so I wasn’t worried about them. I only wanted to tell them where I was so they wouldn’t worry about me. Later I found out that they were all praying for me. Incredibly, my thirteen-year-old son, Jonathan, was anxiously pacing the floor of the store while a tornado was directly over his head, praying over and over again that God would save me. What others would call “luck” in my survival, I credit to their prayers.
It took some time, but eventually my new-found friends pulled up to the ER. I opened the door of the truck and fell out again onto the pavement. During the truck ride, my head had begun to hurt a little, but I still couldn’t figure out why I kept stumbling. I remember a handful of emergency personnel at the entrance of the ER; several picked me up and put me into a wheelchair. When they wheeled me in, a lineup of ER staff members stared at me with wide-opened eyes. They had already been told to expect the worst, and I was their first patient.
It wasn’t until they rushed me back to a cubicle and removed my clothing that I realized why everyone looked at me in amazement, as well as why I kept stumbling. My white headband was bright red, soaked in blood. My clothing had blood all over it. Soon the sheets on the hospital bed would have mud and blood on them. The gash in my head was pretty bad; all the way to the skull, and requiring 7 or 8 staples to stop the bleeding. My leg looked awful—bloody, cut up, and quickly swelling to a large size. Oh, I thought, this is why I keep falling.
I had a concussion and my leg was badly bruised, but I knew in my heart that I was okay. I knew that God had saved me; that I had lived through they eye of a tornado, that two months of prayers about trust had been answered in a massive way. Odd, but I felt euphoric; I couldn’t stop laughing. The morphine and the hydrocodone only made me more animated. I joked with the ER staff, who seemed more stressed than I was (they weren’t on morphine). I tried to encourage them to wheel me over to the side and prepare for an onslaught of seriously wounded people, but they were too professional and too kind to do that. Every one of them was super nice to me. Two different women, both named Jennifer, were especially kind to me; I remember thinking that Jennifer was going to be one of my new favorite words. I felt as though we were all in this together. I know I must have talked their heads off. All I could say, over and over again, was “I survived a tornado. Can you believe it? I was in the eye of a tornado. And I survived!”
I went home from the hospital with dear friends, who prepared dinner for me while my family went to see if we still had a house. Incredibly, our house didn’t have a single shred of damage or debris, even though scores of houses all around us were hit by the storm. By eight o’clock I was home with my family. We had no electricity, but we had all survived. God is awesome, we agreed, before saying goodbye to the wildest day of our lives.
The Good Friday tornado was one of the worst storms ever to strike Murfreesboro. To this date, no one is even sure how many tornados touched down in Murfreesboro. Were there two? Even three? The tornado that caught me cut a 23-mile path through Rutherford County, sometimes as wide as half a mile. Experts estimate that the tornado measured four on the Fuchita scale (an “F-4” tornado) when it passed over me; that’s a “Devastating Tornado packing winds between 210 and 260 miles per hour” according to the National Weather Service. Over 800 businesses and homes were damaged by the tornado, scores of them completely destroyed. Fifty-one persons were treated for injuries, some severe. Two precious people lost their lives. I suffered a concussion and a beat up leg. Thirty eight million dollars worth of damage was inflicted on our community.
But Tennesseans have a knack for bouncing back. The very next day, literally hundreds upon hundreds of people roamed the neighborhoods with chainsaws, shovels, food and water, helping neighbors clean up. A hundred-fifty people from my church gathered at 8:00 a.m. and spent the day helping their neighbors. To date, there has not been a single incident of vandalism. Instead, everyone is pulling together to help each other out. Our community has come together. We’re going to be okay.
Easter Sunday, 2009, was one of the prettiest Sundays I’ve ever seen. The weather was cool, the sun was beautiful, and the sky was perfect blue. It was an Easter unlike any other in my life. I had already planned to talk about the Resurrection, but now I had felt it. God raised me on Good Friday.
Our church had 2,307 in attendance, shattering our old attendance record. Across the stage we had over a hundred lilies, looking a lot like angels in front of the empty tomb. And there I was, hobbling onto the platform with my brother ministers, surrounded by the white heralds of spring, proclaiming that, no matter how dark the storm may seem, Christ is risen!
TR contributor DAVID YOUNG lives and runs in Murfreesboro. He would like to warn everyone to pay better attention to weather forecasts, and not to run in tornados. Although he knows there are better ways to train, Young believes that hanging on to trees, while an F-4 is overhead, does offer significant upper body strengthening.