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FIRST SIRENS, THEN THEY HUDDLED IN A DORM TUB

A Wesley Chapel High grad now at a small Tennessee college tells of when the storms hit.

Claire Elmblad had spent all week fighting the flu and was finally hungry enough to eat.

Then the sirens started.

"We were flipping out," said Elmblad, a 2007 Wesley Chapel High School graduate who now attends Union University, a 3,000-student Southern Baptist college in Tennessee.

Elmblad, 19, and her three roommates had front-row seats as a cluster of tornadoes ripped across five Southern states Tuesday night and killed at least 57people. At Union, 51 students were taken to hospitals. Several students had to be rescued from buildings that collapsed.

Moments after the sirens began wailing, a resident assistant knocked on the door.

"She told us to get in the bathroom and shut the door until someone came to get us," Elmblad said.

Elmblad grabbed her personal computer, her purse and a few childhood keepsakes. She and her roommates and another student went into the bathroom but didn't take it seriously at first.

"I remember just kind of joking about it," said Elmblad, who experienced Florida's 2004 hurricanes and a couple of minor California earthquakes during her childhood. "We thought it was a total drill."

Then the lights started flickering, "and it became really serious."

"We prayed," she said. "A lot."

The five women crammed into the tub and began belting out praise songs at the top of their lungs. Elmblad used her cell phone to call her parents.

"I don't think they even knew what was going on," she said.

Her parents, Kathy and Chip, were concerned but didn't realize the magnitude of the disaster, as television stations were focusing on Super Tuesday presidential primary returns.

"It didn't really hit me until the next morning," Kathy Elmblad said.

Claire Elmblad said when the tornado hit, the air pressure dropped. Ears popped. "You could hear the water in the toilet and all the drains being pulled down," she said.

And, yes, it sounded like a train.

At that point, "everybody started bawling," Elmblad said.

After the twisters passed, the women started calling to check on friends.

"We had no idea if people were okay or what happened," Elmblad said. "I knew something had hit close, but we didn't know it had hit our campus."

After about a half-hour, a resident assistant told the group to leave and go to a nearby science building, the only one with generators.

Elmblad recalled grabbing towels, a scarf and shoes before evacuating. "At this point, I was shaking," she said.

There was talk among the students of a possible second twister. The students made sure they had Bibles in each room of the academic building and kept praying.

Later that evening, some faculty and community members arrived to take in the displaced students. Elmblad spent the night at the home of a local doctor.

On Wednesday, she and her roommates were allowed to briefly return to their dormitories to retrieve their belongings. She was able to get most of her possessions except for room decorations.

Elmblad returned to a campus with downed power lines and cars lying on their sides, their windows shattered.

"It's pretty trashed," she said. "Many of the dorms are completely down. A lot of my friends don't have anything left. It feels like we're watching a National Geographic Channel, only we're living it."

Classes have been canceled until Feb. 18. By Thursday, Elmblad was back in Wesley Chapel, drifting off to sleep after spending the day doing television interviews.

"In about a week, she'll probably be feeling guilty because she's not there helping with the cleanup," her mother said.

This report includes information from the Jackson Sun.

"It's pretty trashed. Many of the dorms are completely down. A lot of my friends don't have anything left. It feels like we're watching a National Geographic Channel, only we're living it."

Claire Elmblad, who survived a tornado at her college in Tennessee Tuesday night.

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