When Adam Watt, 21, of Evanston, Ill., spotted the tornado, the University of Alabama sophomore took cover.
"I feel very fortunate. I've never felt this lucky in my life. When we ran inside the house, my friend's apartment, I really thought, there was a thought in the back of my head that I might die," said Watt.
Dozens did die but those who survived, including Watt, turned to help others.
"I think everyone is eager to help but at the same time they are sad for what has occurred," said Watt.
Back in Chicago, Adam Watt's father, Bill, who received dozens of texts and emails from the university, praised the school's emergency response.
"We received an update saying that all the university structures were in tact without damage, which was a huge relief to us while we were waiting to hear from Adam," said Bill Watt.
Another student, Katherine Sandberg, of Oak Lawn, Ill., also survived. Her mother watched a live webcam feed of the tornado.
"I was watching the storm approach and saw the wall of tornardo coming...We were blessed. It literally hit a block from her apartment and half a mile the other way," said Michele Sandberg, mother.
At Midway Airport Thursday night, passengers arriving on flights from Birmingham said they are relieved.
"I'm just grateful to be back home and hoping and praying for the families that lost people," said Tamara Rob.
The students are confident the people in Alabama will be persevere.
"We get in there and do it. We take care of it. We use chainsaw and trucks, and we help each other," said Sandra Whitaker, Hanceville resident.
There is a tight network of families and friends in Chicago who have connections to the University of Alabama. The local alumni chapter is planning a fundraiser to help those who need it most in Tuscaloosa. They are still working on the details.
The University of Alabama has cancelled final exams next week, and the spring graduation ceremony will happen later this summer.