It had been an afternoon of severe weather across North Alabama, but the next day was expected to result in even worse weather for Georgia. After dark, severe storms unexpectedly dropped southeast towards Atlanta. Conditions were not particularly favorable for severe weather, as there was only a slight risk of severe weather across Georgia, but as the thunderstorm moved from Alabama into Georgia, it quickly became severe.
The thunderstorm produced a tornado near Cartersville and turned southeastward toward the Atlanta metro.
Seeing indications of rotation on their Doppler radar, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Atlanta issued a tornado warning at 9:26 p.m. when the tornado-producing thunderstorm was only about 6 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. No prior tornado watch had been in effect.
In the Georgia Dome, the quarterfinal game in the 2008 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament between Alabama and Mississippi State was being played.
Alabama was down 59-56 with just seconds to play in regulation. At 9:28 p.m. EDT, Mississippi State had broken a tie game to take a three point lead at 59-56.
At 9:33 p.m., Alabama had to inbound the ball with 2 seconds on the clock. University of Alabama senior Mykal Riey launched a shot from just outside the 3 point arc. The miracle shot bounced around the rim and dropped in, sending the game into overtime.
As Crimson Tide fans cheered wildly and Bulldog fans groaned, they had no idea that the fantastic shot may well have saved their lives.
At 9:38 p.m. EDT, with the game in overtime, the signal from Raycom Sports began to fade as the storm hit the Georgia Dome.
Inside the Dome, fans were oblivious to the weather outside as the overtime period started. Halfway into the overtime, at 9:38 p.m. EDT, a loud roaring sound was heard. Television announcers said that it sounded like a freight train. Lights and catwalks in the Dome began to sway and debris rained down inside the arena. Players on the court stopped and fans in the upper levels of the arena began to panic. No one knew what was going on. There were no public address announcements about the severe weather until well after the storm had hit.
The court was cleared and order restored, but outside, the scene was like that of a war zone. Damage was widespread. An F2 tornado had struck downtown Atlanta.
When the wind subsided, it was evident that the building had been damaged. There were open holes in the building envelope. A water main was broken, sending water cascading down stairs and escalators. The game was completed over an hour later. Mississippi State won the game by two points. With the building damaged, the final quarterfinal game of the night was postponed.
The rest of the games were played at Georgia Tech, with only press, family and cheerleaders present. Georgia had to play two games in one day to get to the final against Arkansas on Sunday
But the real story was the miracle shot by Mykal Riley of Alabama that sent the game into overtime and kept thousands of fans inside the Georgia Dome. Had the game ended in regulation and had the game not gone into overtime, thousands of fans would have been outside the stadium when the tornado struck. Yet because fans stayed to watch the game in overtime, a tremendous catastrophe was averted.
The tornado touched down just west of the Georgia World Congress Center, which was heavily damaged. The tornado passed just one hundred yards north of the Dome and turned east-southeast on a six-mile path, lifting near I-20 in DeKalb County.
An NBA game was being played at the Philips Arena, which was impacted directly by the tornado, as was the CNN/Omni Hotel complex.
The tornado damaged not only the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena, the CNN Center, and the Omni Hotel, but it blew windows out of downtown hotels, cars, and buildings and even caused the collapse of several buildings. In the nearby historic Cabbagetown district, several homes and buildings were destroyed. Over fifty homes were destroyed and the Cotton Mill lofts were heavily damaged.
Tragically, one person was killed in the tornado in a collapsed building. Thirty were injured in the tornado. Both Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Governor Sonny Perdue issued a state of emergency declaration for the city of Atlanta, which was also declared to be a major disaster by President Bush.
Top winds were estimated to be 130 mph.
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