Photo from Cyclones.com
On March 3, 2020, a tornado ripped through central Tennessee, killing more than 20 people and destroying hundreds of homes. It was headline news. But days later, the spread of the coronavirus suspended the NBA season, then forced the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament, and has since altered nearly aspect of our daily routines.
So for most of us, March 3 seems like a lifetime ago.
But not for Savannah Sanders. Sanders, a former Iowa State softball player who pitched for the Cyclones from 2016 through 2019, was at her family’s home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee on when her phone lit up with a severe weather alert.
“Around 12:30 a.m. we got an alert on our phones for severe weather, and my mom woke me up to move my Jeep closer to the garage so it wouldn’t get hail damage,” Sanders said. “We did that, and by the time we got back inside and turned on the TV in my parents’ room, we heard them say to take cover. My mom and I grabbed some pillows really quick and headed to the interior bathroom with our Jack Russell since we have no basement.”
Seconds later, they heard the proverbial “freight train” sound. Sanders’ father heard it too and took cover alongside his wife and daughter.
“The loud roar continued as it moved closer to us and then it was dead silent for about 30 seconds. Out of nowhere, the twister hit. Every single window in the house shattered from the pressure, the roof flew off and the walls caved in. It felt like the entire earth was shaking. You could hear stuff flying around and falling off the walls and then it was dead silent again.”
Just three minutes separated the warning and the destruction of Sanders’ family home.
The house no longer had a roof, walls, or any furniture. It was all gone. But Sanders and her parents had no idea what was gone or what remained—they were trapped by debris. With no cell phone service, all they could do was wait.
Thankfully, emergency personnel arrived within the hour, and neither Sanders nor her parents were seriously injured. Once pulled to safety, they searched the rubble in the darkness for anything worth keeping.
They didn’t recognize the true extent of the damage until the sun came up hours later.
“We realized the only part of the house still intact was the tiny bathroom we were in,” Sanders said. “There was no roof over us, but the drywall was still partially there over the bathroom. I’ll never forget walking back up to our house and realizing nothing was there and the musty smell in the midst of it all.”
As she searched in the daylight, Sanders had three priorities: Some family keepsakes, her diabetic supplies, and “anything Iowa State.” With the help of some volunteers, she was able to salvage some Cyclone shirts, her Letterwinners Club class ring, and some Big 12 academic trophies.
In the hours and days that followed, more than 100 friends and family members helped the Sanders family clear out debris and salvage what they could. And Cyclone Nation wasn’t far behind. A GoFundMe account was established by the Iowa State Softball Alumni Group, and more $11,000 has been raised to date.
“When we first found about it (the GoFundMe account), we all just started crying. It was started by a former player, and so many alumni, fans, strangers and in-between have given more than we could have ever expected.”
But there was one former Cyclone whose help Sanders declined—her boyfriend, Josh Knipfel. The former offensive lineman graduated in December and was in the heart of his training for his NFL pro day.
“He kept trying to come to Mt. Juliet to help with the tornado recovery. But after much persuasion, I convinced him staying in Iowa and sticking to his routine was the best option and that we had plenty of help here.”
Sanders was planning to see Knipfel at the end of March when she flew to Ames for his pro day and football banquet. But the spread of the coronavirus derailed those plans.
So, for the time being, Sanders is staying in Mt. Juliet to finish the cleanup process and her master’s classes in Human Development and Leadership at Murray State. She’s hopeful she’ll see Knipfel soon.
“He’s been my rock through so much: Injuries, ending one chapter of being an athlete and starting a new one, traveling all over the country for games, visiting my hometown, and making Iowa seem like home to me, he really has been there through it all.”
March has been unrelenting for Sanders but somehow, she’s maintained a positive outlook—an outlook she attributes to the support of Knipfel, her family, and Cyclone Nation.
“With the tornado, pandemic and so much more, I have been able to stay sane because of the people around me. Having Josh, my family, and Cyclone Nation in my corner is an unbelievable feeling. I told someone last week that we may not have much, but we have each other. We hear that so often, but with the current situation it really does hit home a little bit more.”
To donate to the GoFundMe page set up for the Sanders family, click here.