March 20, 2008 – I've never met Mykal Riley, a 6'6" senior forward for the Univeristy of Alabama basketball team, but he may have saved my
life last Friday night.
I was among the almost 20,000 people inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta watching Mississippi State and Alabama compete in a closely
contested quarterfinal game in the SEC tournament.
The Bulldogs rallied to take a 3-point lead with barely a second to play. Bruce native Kent Moore, the only Mississippi State fan in our group – that included Brad Logan, Casey Clark, Dr. Bruce Longest, Jim and Jerry Beckett, Wade Clark, and myself, all Ole Miss fans except for me – gave us approval to head for the exits to get ahead of the crowd for a dinner reservation, thinking the Dogs had this game wrapped up.
We walked up the stairs and were halfway to the doors when Riley drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer causing the Georgia Dome to erupt and send the game to overtime. We all looked at Kent, smiled, and returned to our seats.
Approximately 10 minutes later, a loud freight train-like roar came over the top of the dome.
Brad Logan described the sound as a giant helicopter. It lasted maybe two seconds.
The Georgia Dome's fabric roof began waving like a sheet on a clothesline. The light rafters near the ceiling began shaking and the giant scoreboard hanging over center court was swaying back and forth like a huge pendulum.
Suddenly everyone in the building, including the players on the court, was looking up as a large gash was ripped open just below the roof line.
The tear was large enough for the fans inside the dome to see the huge lightning flashes outside.
As the public address announcer began urging for calmness and announcing severe weather was outside, many of the 20,000 fans began evacuating to the concessions area, out from under the roof and still rocking rafters.
I turned around to see most of my group, except for Brad Logan, already out of sight. Danny Hawkins, of Calhoun City, and Hugh Mitchell Cannon, of Bruce, who were sitting just to our left were gone. Travis Childers, a candidate for Congress in next month's runoff, had been sitting right in front of us, but he and his wife had also left their seats.
Woody, Fran and Parker Jones, all of Calhoun City, were still just to our right. Like me and Brad, they were transfixed to the ceiling and the giant holes in the side of the dome.
"What was that? What are you hearing?" Woody asked as I answered my phone.
All 20,000 were trying to use cell phones making it difficult to get out a call. But it only took a few minutes before we had confirmation of a tornado.
My phone was constantly being lit up by friends and family who had been watching the game on TV. Brad and I both finally got text messages out to our wives letting them know we were fine.
We were never hit with any sense of real danger, more of an amazement at what we had just witnessed.
We waited more than an hour and the game was resumed with the Bulldogs pulling out another close victory when Riley's second buzzer-beating three rattled the rim and came out. We quickly decided we were not staying for the next game, which was ultimately postponed anyway.
We left the dome to find the real damage. Yellow insulation, large tiles off buildings, toppled statues, trash and glass littered the streets. All of the skyscraper hotels in the vicinity and the neighboring CNN Center had dozens of windows blown out, covering the streets with tiny shards of glass that crunched under our feet as we returned to our hotel, which was luckily out of the path of the tornado.
When we got back to the Marriott Marquis and had a moment to gather our thoughts – the first thing that popped into all of our heads was what if Riley hadn't hit that three and we walked out the door minutes before the tornado arrived.
Thanks to Mykal Riley, that's a question we didn't have to answer.
"Miracle 3" is a film by ESPN that chronicles the dramatic events that ensued after a tornado hit downtown Atlanta as the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament was being played at the Georgia Dome. SEC Storied: "Miracle 3" premieres March 3, 2013.
You may email Joel McNeece at firstname.lastname@example.org