BY JOE BUCK COATES
They left going to Atlanta last week for one main purpose–to root on their favorite basketball team to victories in the Southeastern Conference Men’s Tournament at the Georgia Dome in downtown. After leaving the MSU-Alabama contest, which carried over into overtime and included a 63 minute weather delay, they felt lucky to be alive.
Area residents Doug McElveen, his son Ryan, Lee Adams, Steve Bozeman and wife Becky and daughters Grace and Rachel–all fans of the Bulldogs–and Crimson Tide fans Dr. Randy Hankins. wife Janet and her parents were in the Georgia Dome when the storm hit Friday night. Without warning to the fans attending the game, a tornadic super cell thuderstorm struck the downtown Atlanta area, damaging the Dome and several high-rise buildings with high winds, and rattling the nerves of the thousands of fans and participants during the second-round contest on Friday evening.
“We were completely surprised and did not know what it was when it happened. We thought at first it may have been a terrorist attack,” Doug McElveen explained. He and Ryan, Lee and the Hankins were seated together.
“We had no idea there was bad weather. We had no warning. When we entered the Dome, the sun was shining outside,” McElveen said.
Several news helicopters were spotted outside of the facility prior to the evening’s games, and McElveen said that he thought at the time the storm hit that they may have been flying over the dome causing the roof to ripple so violently. “We just didn’t know until they announced that a storm had come through.”
The Bozemans were seated in the Dome’s temporary bleachers during the game. “It all happened so fast,” Steve Bozeman said. “I thought it was a train. Then, we look up and see the scoreboard swaying and insulation flying around, and had no idea it was a storm until the public address announcer said so a few minutes later.”
When the storm struck, the players stopped cold in their tracks, looking up to see the swaying scoreboard and catwalks right above their heads. Soon after, participants were shuttled to locker areas. Coaches emerged moments later and secured family members. Game management huddled to discuss what to do.
Hundreds of fans headed for the corridors, including the McElveen party. The Bozemans attempted to exit the bleachers, but were cut off because that section where 7,000 were seated only has two walkways. In a matter of seconds the two paths were clogged, forcing the Bozemans back to their seats.
Mississippi State eventually won the game 69-67 in the overtime, but not before having to wait out the storm and its aftermath for over an hour to play the final two minutes.
What amazed the Copiah County contingent and nearly everyone else is how one small thing can have such an impact on future events. In regulation, MSU was leading by three points with 2 seconds left. Alabama had to execute a sideline throw-in perfectly to have a chance to get off a shot to tie.
Well, in true Mississippi State fashion, the Bulldogs allowed the Crimson Tide to do just that. The Tide’s Mike Riley took the pass on the elbow extended, just beyond the arc, and turned and rattled in a three-pointer as time expired, tying the game at 59.
The teams were headed to an overtime that turned out to be a huge blessing in a big disguise. Had Riley not scored a dramatic three point shot to tie the game at the end of regulation, perhaps thousands of fans would have been outside during the height of the storm. “It would have been a worse disaster and lots of people could have been hurt or killed,” McElveen said. Instead, most everyone was in relative safety inside the Dome.
The SEC then announced that the final game of the evening between Kentucky and Georgia was post-poned indefinitely. The game was finally played Saturday morning at Georgia Tech.
Once headed back to their hotels after the game, the contingent discovered just how bad the brief storm was. Debris and glass were strewn everywhere. Billboards were blown from the tops of the tall buildings. The buildings themselves had windows knocked out, and office furniture was sucked out by the force of the winds. Downtown Atlanta was a disaster area. But, injuries were few, everyone was alive.
“For our safety–and the good shooting of the Alabama point guard, even though at the time I wasn’t glad he made the shot–we can all be thankful,” McEleveen added.
Even though the SEC decided to move the tournament to Georgia Tech, and denied fans from entering the remaining games, the trip was a very memorable one for many, including several from Copiah County. The entire group made the trip home safely, intact and with a great story tell their grandchildren.