- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

ATLANTA (AP) - A severe storm ripped through downtown Atlanta on Friday night, injuring several people and damaging skyscrapers, hotels and two major sports arenas that were filled with thousands of pro and college basketball fans.

National Weather Service officials were unsure if a tornado had touched down, but wind was clocked at up to 60 mph as the storm moved through the city.

On its Web site, CNN said its headquarters sustained ceiling damage, allowing water to pour into the atrium, as well as shattered windows in the CNN.com newsroom and the company’s library.

A firefighter outside the skyscraper said three people in the vicinity had been transported to hospitals, including a child with head injuries. He said none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

Atlanta Police spokesman Ronald Campbell said authorities had blocked off roads around the CNN Center, where heavy debris filled the streets. A chair from the skyscraper’s lobby sat in the middle of the street, flanked by cars crushed by debris from the building.

Most of the damage was concentrated in downtown Atlanta, Campbell said.

At the Georgia Dome, where Mississippi State was playing the University of Alabama in a Southeastern Conference Tournament basketball game, catwalks swayed and insulation fell from the roof, sending fans fleeing toward the exits and the teams to their locker rooms.

The game resumed after a delay of about an hour.

“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 wind, but was rippling heavily in the storm, much like waves rolling toward the shore.

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.

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.

There was also damage at nearby Philips Arena, where the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks were playing the Los Angeles Clippers

Georgia Power Co. spokeswoman Consuela Monroe said about 10,000 customers had lost power in the Atlanta area.

Terrance Evans, 23, a valet at the Omni Hotel, which adjoins Philips arena, said he was standing outside and was about to park a car and took cover when the storm hit.

“It was crazy,” Evans said. “There was a lot of windows breaking and stuff falling. You would hear a big boom.”

Karone Edge, 23, was working out with two friends in a weight room at the Westin Hotel when he saw debris fly by the window. After watching the glass shatter in front of him, he said everyone began to run, and he fell, scraping his leg.

“I thought the building was falling like a terrorist attack,” said Edge, who was walking around with a bloodied sock.

In the East Atlanta neighborhood, downed trees, debris and power lines were strewn in the street, which was eerily quiet in the wake of the pounding hail, sheets of rain, flashes of lightning and growling thunder.

Melody and Brad Sorrells were at home with their two children when the storm hit. The family was in their living room when Melody Sorrells said she heard the huge pine in their front yard crash into their house.

“I saw it falling and we ran into the back bedrooms in the closet,” she said, while turning to look at the massive trunk blocking the front door. “I feel sick.”

The family escaped out of the back of the house. Brad Sorrells said the winds sounded like a roaring train.

“It was a tornado,” he said, with arms folded.

Associated Press writer Errin Haines and AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this story.

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