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Gainesville couple at epicenter of Atlanta storm

POSTED: March 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
For The Times/

Jena Payne of Murrayville and an unidentified man take shelter in the stairwell of the CNN center in Atlanta Friday night after a tornado ripped through downtown.

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  • Hear Jennifer Cochran describe the event.
Although no tornadoes reportedly touched down in Hall County Saturday, tornado devastation did hit home for several Hall County residents who were in downtown Atlanta Friday night when a tornado mangled the CNN Center.

The EF-2 tornado registered winds near 130 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado first touched down near the intersection of Simpson and Burbank streets at 9:38 p.m. and traveled six miles east over the Georgia World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome, the CNN Center and Omni Hotel Complex and Philips Arena, where an NBA basketball game was under way.

At its maximum strength, the tornado roared through downtown Atlanta, spanning 200 yards.

Jennifer Cochran was attending a dental conference at the CNN Center Omni Hotel with her husband, Sean Cochran, a dentist with Cleveland Family Dental, when downtown Atlanta was jolted by its first ever tornado.

"I’m still shaken," Jennifer said. "We were eating dinner at a restaurant, Ray’s in the City, one block north of the Westin, when the tornado came through."

Jennifer said she and her husband were enjoying their dinner at a table five feet from a window at the restaurant when howling winds quieted dining patrons at about 9:45 p.m. Friday.

"A hush fell over the restaurant. We all just kind of watched as everything just rolled down the street," Jennifer said. "Everything rolled down the street for about ten seconds in one direction and then everything rolled back down the street for about 20 seconds in the other direction. Metal pedestrian barriers were literally rolling down Peachtree Street, and you could see the rain blowing sideways."

Moments later, Jennifer received a frantic phone call from Murrayville resident Jena Payne, a dental hygienist and manager of Cleveland Family Dental.

Payne was settling her tab at the bar of the Omni Hotel at the CNN Center just blocks away when she said glass exploded up from the bottom floor of the complex. She quickly informed the Cochrans of the damage the CNN Center sustained and suggested they return to the Omni Hotel immediately.

Payne said she was not aware of a tornado warning at the time, and observed white-tinted whirlwinds outside the window while sitting at the bar of the Omni Hotel.

"Instinctively, I grabbed my co-workers and said ‘Run!’ Then a burst of glass came up through the atrium onto the floor," Payne said. "We were covered in glass and it looked like we were covered in glitter. It was like an eruption of debris. It wasn’t until a little later that we realized a tornado hit the building.

"It was very surreal afterwards. It was real quiet. There was no screaming, only the sound of alarms going off," Payne said. "It was pretty disturbing to see people cut."

Jennifer said it took her and her husband 20 minutes to make the five-minute taxi drive to the Omni Hotel due to officials hurriedly closing roadways in the area.

"I thought it was a micro burst, like a mini tornado, at first," Jennifer said. "But when I got to CNN, the conditions were worse than I expected. It looked like a bomb exploded there was so much insulation and glass everywhere. There were holes in the ceiling where it was raining in the atrium. Pretty much all of the windows were broken on the seventh floor — our floor."

Inside the CNN Center, police officers guided Payne and the Cochrans to a stairwell away from open windows where they sought shelter for nearly two hours. Near midnight, Jennifer said police officers and emergency service workers wearing orange vests from the Omni Hotel staff relocated them and about 1,500 other people to the complex’s lowest level for thirty minutes.

"A lot of people were crying," Jennifer said. "A lot of comforting was going on."

When officials finally gave the 1,500 people huddled in the basement the all clear signal, Jennifer said she was astounded to discover the three inches of broken glass that littered the floor of the CNN Center. She said the windows to her seventh floor hotel room, which faced inward toward the atrium, where shattered.

"It was like walking on ice or snow," Jennifer said. "We had to carry our luggage down nine flights of stairs and then there was so much glass we had to continue carrying it because we couldn’t roll it."

Payne added the tornado caught some hotel patrons shoeless in their pajamas. She said some people were using upholstery from hotel furniture to create makeshift shoes to avoid cuts from the shards of broken glass scattered throughout the complex.

Jennifer said she and her husband gathered their belongings and ventured to their car located in the complex’s north tower parking area, which did not sustain as much damage as the complex’s south tower. After surviving the Atlanta tornado, the Cochrans safely arrived at their Gainesville home early Saturday morning, where they waited out Saturday’s series of storms and tornado threats.

"I said here we go again," she said. "I feel very blessed and that we were very, very lucky to get through this."



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