Storms Disrupt SEC Tournament; UK-Georgia May Play Saturday Morning

ATLANTA (AP) - A severe storm ripped into the Georgia Dome
during the Southeastern Conference tournament, sending debris
tumbling from the ceiling, prompting fans to flee for the exits and
postponing the final game Friday night.
The storm struck while Alabama and Mississippi State were in
overtime in their quarterfinal matchup. They were able to finish
after a delay of more than an hour - Mississippi State won 69-67 -
but the last game between Georgia and Kentucky was called off
because of concerns that more strong storm cells were closing in on
downtown.
The SEC was considering the unprecedented scenario of playing
three games on Saturday, with the Georgia-Kentucky winner having to
return later in the day for a semifinal game against Mississippi
State.
The National Weather Service wasn't sure if a tornado struck the
16-year-old dome, but everyone sure felt that way after a loud
rumbling noise swept over the building. The fabric roof rippled
like waves in the ocean, while scaffolding, catwalks and a
temporary video board swayed dangerously over the crowded stands.
Metal bolts and washers fell from the roof, while two cloth
panels above the upper deck tore open. Outside, large chunks of
insulation and metal panels - some as long as 25 feet long - were
blown off the building.
There were no reports of injuries inside the stadium, SEC
associate commissioner Charles Bloom said.
"We planned for a lot of things," Mississippi State coach Rick
Stansbury said. "We didn't plan for a tornado."
The Alabama-Mississippi State game was stopped with the Bulldogs
leading 64-61 and 2:11 left in overtime. Both teams were sent to
the locker room and some fans hurried away from their seats. Those
who remained looked anxiously at the Teflon-coated Fiberglas fabric
roof, which is designed to flex slightly during high winds but was
rippling heavily in the storm.
"I thought it was a tornado or a terrorist attack," said
Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, who was guarding Alabama's
Mykal Riley when the rumbling began above their heads.
The weather service said the wind was clocked at up to 60 mph as
the storm moved through the city. Another set of possibly severe
storms were expected to hit Atlanta after midnight.
"Due to continuing severe weather in the area and the fear of
further damage to the dome, the decision was made to postpone
tonight's game between Kentucky and Georgia," Bloom said.
He was the building was deemed structurally sound when Alabama
and Mississippi State resumed play, though huge chunks or debris
were piled up on the sidewalks surrounding the 70,000-seat stadium
and a breeze could be felt blowing through the inside.
Thousands of fans were downtown for two sporting events. An NBA
game between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers was going
on at next door at Philips Arena, which reported no major damage.
But numerous windows in CNN Center, headquarters of the cable news
network and part of the same complex, were blown out.
"We urge you to remain calm and here in the Georgia Dome until
the storm has passed," the stadium's public address announcer
said.
Several fans and at least one reporter on press row said metal
bolts and washers fell from the ceiling. A pipe ripped a hole in
the roof away from the court, which is set up at one end of the
dome in a smaller configuration for basketball.
There was no announcement during the game that a strong storm
was approaching, but several fans got advance warning on their cell
phones.
"Ironically, the guy behind me got a phone call saying there
was a tornado warning," said Lisa Lynn of Atlanta, who was
watching the game from the lower deck. "And in 2 seconds, we heard
the noise and things started to shake. It was creepy."
Another fan got a call from his wife.
"Actually, I had some warning," said Richard Ross of Atlanta.
"I live about six miles west of here. My wife called and said she
could hear what she thought was a tornado. So when I heard it, I
knew it was pretty close to a tornado." About 15 minutes after the game was stopped, the crowd was told
that the building had been inspected and was "structurally
sound."
The teams finally returned to the court after a delay of about
50 minutes. The players were given a 10-minute warmup period and
play resumed after a delay of 1 hour, 5 minutes.
The Georgia Dome, which is as tall as a 29-story building, had
the largest cable-supported roof in the world when it opened in
1992. Three years later, trouble developed when heavy rain pooled
in a section of the roof and tore it open. The roof was repaired,
and a structural adjustment was made to avoid future problems.
Two brothers from Kentucky planned to stick it out until the
end.
"We aren't going to leave without seeing Kentucky," Dave
Uhlman said.
His brother, Phil, added, "Wind, rain, a tornado - it doesn't
matter."
The large Kentucky contingent booed loudly when the announcement
came: The final game was postponed, with no word on when it would
be played.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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