HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Paul Bracken and Calum Brodie had heard all about the dire weather warnings issued for this past weekend, but the two 19-year-old freshmen at William Carey University didn't have a clue what was in store for them after a late night of shooting pool and a pit stop at Walmart.
Bracken and Brodie, WCC soccer teammates, hail from Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, respectively, where a few centimeters of snow or wind-driven rain constitute a bad time.
"We didn't take it seriously because back home we don't get freaky weather," Bracken said Saturday evening. "We just thought it'd be a lot of rain."
And in many cases, thunderstorm cells deliver just that, a good soaking, maybe some nasty gusts of wind.
"I thought about it a bit, but not much, had this idea of it being nothing, really," Brodie said.
That perception changed quickly early Saturday morning, as Bracken, Brodie and Thomas Brune, a German-Swiss tennis player at Carey who hails from Spain, made their way along Helveston Road on the way back to WCC in Brodie's 2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser.
"We're in the car with the radio off, and all of sudden, we heard this rumbling sound coming toward us and it got louder and louder," Brodie said.
And just as they turned into the entrance, they ran into the teeth of an EF3 tornado that would leave the campus in shambles.
"Rocks started hitting the car, and just as we turned the corner, a rock came through the window," Brodie said.
Brodie said the trio wasn't quite sure how to act through the episode.
"We were kind of laughing about it until the rock hit the window," Brodie said. "Then, it was, 'Well, there's going to be a problem here.'"
Said Bracken: "We were joking around, until we turned the corner, and all of a sudden, the window went through and we realized we were in trouble."
Brodie stopped the car about 20 yards from the security gate as more and more debris began whistling past and into the car.
And that's when the vehicle left the ground.
"The car lifted from the back and was heading straight for the (gate)," Bracken said. "The security man, he just popped out because he thought it was coming right for him, but (the car) got caught on the grass patch right there in the front."
The episode took only moments, but Brodie said it seemed like forever with the debris rifling all around the vehicle.
"The storm, it just kept coming and coming, and you just had your head in your hands," he said.
At some point, the trio and the security guard made their way into the nearby gymnasium.
"We ran into basketball arena, and that collapsed on one side," Bracken said.
After a few minutes, the tornado past, and the group went to Johnson Hall to check on fellow students.
"The damage over there was amazing," Bracken said.
The trio went through other residence halls, having to negotiate a knee-deep lake near the center of campus produced by the storm
"We kept running into the buildings, and you're thinking, 'There's going to be something really bad happening, where you're going to find someone,'" Brodie said. "But luckily, it was the weekend, so kids were back home. There weren't that many students on campus."
Eventually, Bracken, Brune and Jordan Duplessie, a resident assistant at Polk Hall, returned to the gymnasium, where they discovered an American flag amid the rubble.
"It was lying on the ground, and we tried to hang it back up the gym, but that wasn't really going to work," Bracken said.
Instead, with the blessing of Carey athletic director Steve Knight, the trio took it outside and hung it horizontally across the badly-damaged security gate.
"It was a matter of respect," Bracken said. "It was terrible to have the nation's flag on the ground, and if something like this happened in Ireland, I'd want someone to do the exact same thing for me.
"No nation's flag should be disrespected that way, lying on the ground, wet and in the rocks. It should be flying brave and proud."
Brodie and Bracken said they weren't sure what the long-term might hold, but at the top of the agenda was sleep.
"I haven't even called my family yet," Bracken said.
The battered Cruiser, missing its rear window and three of its four side windows, was packed to the front seat with the pair's belongings, and the two were headed to the University of Southern Mississippi to bunk down.
"It's been just surreal," Bracken said. "It's just been a different experience, but I'll make sure not to experience it again."