Storm that damaged Georgia Dome, Atlanta was a tornado

Updated: March 15, 2008, 3:36 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

The National Weather Service on Saturday confirmed that a tornado struck downtown Atlanta on Friday night, damaging the Georgia Dome and forcing the Southeastern Conference tournament to move.

The Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the Atlanta area at 9:26 p.m. ET after radar indicated a storm capable of producing a tornado was located about six miles west of Atlanta. The storm ripped a hole in the roof of the Georgia Dome, delaying Mississippi State's 69-67 overtime win over Alabama for more than an hour and forcing the SEC to move the remainder of the tournament to the campus of Georgia Tech.

National Weather Service meteorologist Barry Gooden said the tornado in downtown Atlanta produced winds up to 110 miles an hour -- making it a strength EF1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale -- then grew into an EF2 tornado, which can produce winds up to 135 miles an hour.

Another storm system was expected to pass through the state Saturday, and a tornado watch for much of northern Georgia, including Atlanta, was in place through 7 p.m.

As Mississippi State led 64-61 with 2:11 left in overtime, a loud blast was heard inside the dome. The girders near the dome's roof began to swing, and a gaping section of the north part of the roof was ripped open, dropping debris that included nuts and bolts.

Players and coaches from the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide were sent to the locker room, along with the coaches' wives and children, and stadium officials began to evacuate fans in the upper reaches of the stadium.

"I thought it was a tornado or a terrorist attack," said Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, who was guarding Alabama's Mykal Riley when a rumbling noise was heard from above.

There was also damage at nearby Philips Arena, where the Atlanta Hawks were playing the Los Angeles Clippers.

The storm blew out windows in the CNN Center and the Omni Hotel and caused property damage throughout downtown Atlanta. Georgia Power Co. spokeswoman Consuela Monroe said about 10,000 customers had lost power in the Atlanta area.

Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders said that so far, city officials were not aware of any deaths from the storm.

The Georgia-Kentucky game, postponed from Friday night because of the storm, was played Saturday at Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Georgia won 60-56 in overtime and will have to return in the evening to face Mississippi State in the semifinals.

Because Georgia Tech's home gym holds 9,100 fans, thousands fewer than the Georgia Dome can accommodate for basketball, the SEC decided to play the games with only media, school pep bands, cheerleaders and team family members in attendance.

Conference spokesman DeWayne Peevy told ESPN.com the league consulted with NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Tom O'Connor, the athletic director of George Mason, on the postponement decision. SEC commissioner Mike Slive is on the committee as well and was part of the decision process from Indianapolis.

Peevy said the league considered all possible scenarios -- including having co-champions by playing one game Saturday and the semifinals Sunday -- but was told that because the league gives its automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament to its conference tournament winner, it would have to finish the conference tournament to secure that automatic bid.

Meanwhile, all other weekend events at the Georgia Dome, Centennial Olympic Park and the Georgia World Congress Center were canceled because of storm damage. Those included the Atlanta Home Show, the Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta's annual Hinman Dental Meeting and several other events.

Tyler Williams, from Knoxville, Tenn., said he was sitting in Section 128, six rows behind the home-team bench when the storm hit.

"It sounded like a freight train," Williams said. "The rafters were swaying, and the roof of the dome was starting to ripple.

"It was a little frightening, to say the least."

On the exterior of the north side of the dome, long metal panels littered the parking lot and lawns Friday night. Full-grown trees lay uprooted, and 30-foot traffic signs directing patrons where to park sat turned over.

Eddie Smith, a bus driver who was shuttling media members from the dome to a downtown hotel, said the bus parked in front of him in a Georgia Dome parking lot began rocking back and forth and nearly tipped over during the storm.

"It blew up the hatches on top of the bus," he said. "I thought it was going to tip over."

With crews on hand to fix downed power poles across the street, security personnel began to usher people back inside about 10:20 p.m. as another storm approached.

Next door, at the Georgia World Congress Center, where an ROTC ball hosting 11 high schools was under way before the storm hit, windows were blown out throughout the area and several girls walked without shoes, their feet bleeding.

ESPN.com writers Mark Schlabach and Andy Katz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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