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Survivor: 'We were just shocked'

  • Story Highlights
  • Tennessee college student: "The ceiling was beginning to fall in on us"
  • Union University suffers an estimated $40 million in damages; no deaths on campus
  • At least 52 people have been killed across the South
  • Survivor: "I was thinking about my mom, and I was calling on Jesus"
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JACKSON, Tennessee (CNN) -- Candra Pennington huddled in her dorm room at Union University with about 15 other young women Tuesday night as bad storms swept through western Tennessee.

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Students rush to the scene Tuesday to help people trapped at Union University, I-Reporter Mark Inman said.

At first, Pennington said, the students at the liberal arts Southern Baptist school in Jackson were "laughing and kind of joking," thinking they didn't have much to fear.

But suddenly, the heart of the storm was upon them, and they had to scramble to a nearby bathroom for shelter.

She said they barely escaped.

"As we were closing that bathroom door, the debris and the windows were shattering in with us and the ceiling was beginning to fall in on us," Pennington recalled.

"When we came out, we were just shocked at what we saw -- to see that all of our belongings were gone, that if we hadn't made it to that bathroom, we wouldn't have been OK." Video Watch as the student describes a terrifying night »

Mark Inman, 21, a CNN I-Report contributor, was across campus when the tornado roared through Jackson. Things were chaotic just after the twister struck around 7 p.m. Photo See I-Report storm photos »

"Everybody was trying to jump right in and get people out from under the debris," Inman said. "A lot of people were shaken from being under the debris." Video Watch a student describe being pinned under concrete »

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Amazingly, no one was killed on the campus of about 3,000 students. Two dorms were "completely ripped to shreds," CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera reported from the scene. Video Watch a survivor describe how the building he was in imploded »

About 1,200 students were believed to be in campus dorms at the time of the storm. In parking lots Wednesday morning, cars were flipped over like little toys, their windshields busted out.

Sophomore Andrew Norman said he and others took shelter on the ground floor of his dorm and also fled to a bathroom. He said he got chills as he watched the swirling winds. "The windows exploded and all this dirt came flying in. I've never been through anything like it, for sure," Norman said.

He added, "We're all fortunate. We all made it out OK."

The school has shut down for at least the next two weeks, said university President David Dockery. He said every building on campus sustained some type of damage and estimated damages of $40 million to $50 million. Nine students were hospitalized, but officials said none was believed to have life-threatening injuries.

"Our students were very courageous last night," Dockery said. "They handled an incredibly challenging situation with grace, and they pulled together and helped each other."

At least 52 people have been killed in the storms that wreaked havoc across Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama, emergency officials said. Video Watch one witness say he's "glad to be alive" »

Here is what other survivors had to say:

Ben Powell to CNN affiliate WPTY-TV in Memphis after a storm hit a mall in the Tennessee city
"I know it sounds cliché, but for a minute there I thought it was the end. It was pretty creepy. I've been in some tornadoes before, but I was just trying to stay calm, you know, and stay down."

Unidentified man at the mall told WPTY
"People started screaming and hollering and everybody just broke out running. ... I was thinking about my mom, and I was calling on Jesus."

CNN I-Reporter Angie Gilluly of Memphis
"We were definitely hunkered down in a closet. Our dog was going nuts, and our daughter had never experienced it before. It was kind of scary."

Bonnie Brawner of Macon County, Tennessee, to CNN affiliate WSMV-TV in Nashville
"We had a beautiful neighborhood; now it's hell."

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Kevin Johnson in Southaven, Mississippi, told CNN affiliate WMC-TV in Memphis
"Next thing I know, the doors shook. All I could do is dunk and dodge. It scared me. I saw the roof come off the building ... just pulled back."

Callie Hembree of Southaven to WMC-TV
"I went in the hall with the baby and daughter, and we got underneath blankets and we prayed."

CNN I-Reporter Carl Helton of Lakeland, Tennessee
"Where I was standing, there was a huge hole above me with blue skies." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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