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ETSU Roan Scholars escape Nashville tornado's destructive path

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Mar 3, 2020 at 11:18 PM

As a deadly EF-3 tornado ripped through downtown Nashville Tuesday morning, East Tennessee State University’s Roan Scholars were taking shelter inside their hotel room only a few miles away from the storm’s path of destruction.

“Seeing how close the tornado was to our hotel room really jolted me back to the reality that life is precious,” said ETSU Roan Scholar Cierra Linka. “Beginning today felt like a surreal dream.”

It wasn’t until morning that they realized the extent of the damage. As the tornado tore through downtown Nashville around 1 a.m., many of the scholars were asleep, though some, like Connor McCelland, stayed up and watched as the storm lit up the sky — not knowing the destruction it would bring.

“At one point, you could hear the tornado,” McClelland said. “The cliche is true because it really sounded like a really large train.”

By the time the storm left the area, large swaths of downtown Nashville lay in ruins — including the restaurant the scholars ate at the night before, Geist.

Most, if not all the scholars were awake by 7 a.m. They began looking for more information on what happened overnight and trying to reassure family and friends that they were OK. Linka, who marked herself safe on Facebook, called the damage “heartbreaking.”

“The Roan Program had a full agenda and at the blink of an eye we were watching people take refuge at our hotel, calling their loved ones and each of us just enjoying our time together a little more than usual,” Linka said. “It brings new meaning to the word gratitude.”

Linka and McClelland were among more than two dozen Roan Scholars who were in town to accept a resolution honoring the program’s 20 years. Instead of meeting with Gov. Bill Lee and other legislators, they were on their way back to Johnson City — unharmed and fortunate to escape a storm that would leave at least two dead in the city and nearly 50 buildings in the city damage or destroyed.

“Storms like that remind you very quickly of how small you are,” said McClelland.

In the aftermath of the storm on Tuesday, Gov. Lee declared a statewide state of emergency, and U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would be visiting the area on Friday. At least two other tornadoes touched down overnight in Camden and Cookeville, killing at least 20 more people and leaving tens of thousands without power.

“We encourage all Tennesseans to join us in praying for the families across our state that are facing tragedy today,” Lee tweeted on Tuesday. “Thank you to our first responders for working around the clock to keep us safe on this difficult day.”

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