By Tommie Kendall
While the University of Kentucky men's basketball team was opening its SEC tournament against the Georgia Bulldogs, Mike and Sandy Appleman were trying to get reception on an old radio sitting beside them in their hotel room. For the Henry County couple, along with family members Jim and Jeanie Appleman of Ohio, it wasn't what they had envisioned just a few days earlier.
Instead of cheering for the Wildcats inside the Georgia Dome - like the foursome had planned - they spent the game tapping the radio Saturday afternoon in hopes of getting reception over the loud static. In a turn of events, a tornado swept through Atlanta Friday night, just before Kentucky was set to tip off against Georgia, which damaged Atlanta, forcing Kentucky's game to be delayed until the following day and changing the plans of thousands of SEC fans, including the Applemans.
"It was a bit ironic," Sandy said Monday afternoon, back in her home in Henry County. "We take our first trip (to the SEC tournament) and it's the first time a tornado goes through downtown Atlanta. We sat through seven SEC games and the eighth was going to be our team (Kentucky), and we didn't get to watch them play or even watch the broadcast on TV."
Her husband Mike is a former Henry County High School boys' basketball coach (1994-1998), and also coached at Pendleton County, Bracken County, Spencer County and in Ohio during a 27-year span. It was the Applemans' first trip to the SEC tournament, and one they'll never forget.
"I was a little disappointed not to see the Wildcats, but it was still a great experience," said Mike, who is a big-time UK fan. "It looked like a war zone in Atlanta. I'll still go back though."
The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado struck downtown Atlanta Friday night, damaging the Georgia Dome and forcing the SEC tournament to move. The Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the Atlanta area at 9:26 p.m. after a radar indicated a storm capable of producing a tornado was located about six miles west of Atlanta. The storm eventually ripped a hole in the roof of the Georgia Dome, delaying Mississippi State's 69-67 overtime win over Alabama for more than an hour and forcing the tournament to move the rest of its games to the campus of Georgia Tech.
According to reports, with Mississippi State ahead 64-61 with 2:11 left in overtime, a loud blast was heard inside the dome. The horizontal beams near the dome's roof began to swing and a section of the roof was ripped open, dropping debris that included nuts and bolts. Players and coaches from both teams were sent to the locker room, and stadium officials began to evacuate fans in the upper decks.
The Applemans, anxiously waiting for UK to take to the court, was in the mix of all the chaos.
"It just got really weird about halfway through the overtime," Sandy said. "There was a thunder sound that I thought was just the sound effects inside the dome. Then, everyone all at once just stood up and looked at the ceiling and the thunder kept getting louder and louder. It sounded like a train was over top of us - we were right in the eye of it. And that's when the nuts and bolts started hitting the floor. It was very chaotic for a while. As we looked up, things were falling from the ceiling where there was a hole."
About 18,000 fans were cheering inside the gym while the back-and-forth game went into overtime, and the thunder was much louder than the rowdy crowd, Sandy said.
"It was louder than you can ever imagine," she explained. "They decided to stop the game, and I was told one of the officials actually got hit by something from the ceiling. After an hour, they finished the overtime, but said there was another storm coming through so wouldn't make a decision if UK was going to play until that one passed."
After the second storm went through Atlanta, the SEC officials decided it wasn't safe to start another game so delayed the Kentucky-Gerogia matchup until Saturday, which meant one of the two teams had to play a double header the following day. The fans weren't allowed to leave until both storms passed.
"On the way from the Georgia Dome to our hotel, it was nothing but glass," Sandy said. "It was terrible. The windows were sucked out of the CNN building and there was a tree through the upper level. The lobby of our hotel had shattered glass all over it and one of our hotel room windows actually had a crack in it."
In front of just 3,750 fans - mostly family and fans of players - the SEC resumed play Saturday at noon with Kentucky and Georgia. The Bulldogs, who knocked off Ole Miss in overtime Thursday, came away with the upset victory, then finished its unlikely run to the SEC title with a victory over Mississippi State Saturday night and Arkansas the following day. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were left winless in the SEC tournament but still managed to squeeze into the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed.
As for the Applemans, they spent most of their Atlanta trip stuck in their hotel room. More tornado warnings Saturday made them take cover in the hotel bathroom twice, and they were forced to listen to the game on a radio when the TV didn't work.
So was it all worth it for the Applemans?
"If you're a big-time Kentucky fan, it's a very exciting time so we'll definitely try it again," Sandy said. "It was a real unfortunate event, but it didn't knock us down or keep us out. We'll be back."
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