ATLANTA — A possible tornado 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 the city.
"I thought it was a tornado or a terrorist attack," said Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, who was guarding Alabama's Mykal Riley when rumbling began above their heads.
National Weather Service officials called the storm a possible tornado, and winds were clocked at up to 60 mph as the storm moved through the city.
Said one of Hansbrough's teammates, Charles Rhodes, "This has got to be one of the worst environments I've ever been in as a player. To see stuff falling from the roof, it really scared me. I really didn't know what to do."
The SEC was considering the unprecedented scenario of playing three games on Saturday, possibly shifting to Georgia Tech's 9,100-seat Alexander Memorial Coliseum because of damage to the dome. The Georgia-Kentucky winner might have to return later in the day for a semifinal game against Mississippi State.
"That would be a major, major challenge," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said before taking his team back to its hotel, which wasn't damaged by the storm.
League officials were still huddling early Saturday. There was no immediate word on the revised schedule.
While the weather service waffled on whether a tornado struck the 16-year-old dome, everyone sure felt that's what they had been through 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, and 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. The crowd was estimated at about 18,000.
"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. Alabama coach Mark Gottfried found his family members in the stands and hustled them to safety.
"I looked up," Gottfried said. "I could see everything swaying. I wanted to get my team out of there."
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. The safety of fans returning to the dome on Saturday was a concern.
Thousands were downtown for two sporting events. An NBA game between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers was held 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.