ATLANTA - A severe storm ripped away two panels in the side of the Georgia Dome during the Southeastern Conference tournament, sending debris tumbling from the ceiling, halting the Alabama-Mississippi State game and prompting fans to flee for the exits.
The teams were sent to the locker rooms, while those who remained at their seats looked anxiously toward the roof. The game was stopped with Mississippi State leading 64-61 with 2:11 left in overtime. Mississippi State won 69-67.
It wasn't immediately known if a tornado struck the 16-year-old building, though a roaring noise was heard inside as the severe storm moved through downtown Atlanta.
"I thought it was a tornado or a terrorist attack," said Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, who was guarding Alabama's Mykal Riley when a rumbling noise was heard from above.
Both teams stopped and looked toward the Teflon-coated Fiberglas fabric roof, which is designed to flex slightly during high winds, but was rippling heavily in the storm, much like waves rolling toward the shore. Metal scaffolding and a temporary video board, connected to the roof as part of the setup for playing basketball in the 70,000-seat stadium, were swaying noticeably.
National Weather Service officials were unsure if a tornado caused the damage, but wind was clocked at up to 60 mph as the storm moved through the city.
Thousands of fans were downtown for two sporting events. An NBA game between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers was going on at next door at Philips Arena. 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 public address announcer said.
Several fans and at least one reporter on press row said metal bolts and washers fell from the ceiling, though there were no immediate reports of injuries. A pipe ripped a hole in the roof, and countless metal panels on the outside of the dome - some as long as 25 feet - were torn away by the strong winds.
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.
There was still another quarterfinal game left to play between Kentucky and Georgia. Those teams would not scheduled to tip off until after 11 p.m.
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."