A thriller in Atlanta

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Jumbotron instructions on orderly evacuation of the Georgia Dome in case of an emergency — a canned video akin to the one about oxygen masks and flotation devices on airplanes — set father-in-law Ronnie to reminiscing about his war days.

He told of his first night in Vietnam and the ornery bunkmate who instructed him to “follow me” should their barracks come under enemy fire. Sure enough, a nearby mortar round soon would waken the nervous soldier, who wasn’t about to wait on his self-appointed guide. Ronnie streaked — in bare feet and underwear — to the bunker, beating everyone in the unit, including his bunkmate.

We laughed heartily. The passage of decades allows us to do that, even on a sensitive subject like war.

A few hours later, as we watched a college basketball game with 25,000 other fans in the mammoth Atlanta arena, the evacuation video and Ronnie’s war story would prove eerily appropriate the evening of March 14.

With two minutes left in overtime of a Southeastern Conference Tournament game between Alabama and Mississippi State, a low-grade rumble, which might easily have been mistaken for fan noise in a nail-biter of a game, grew into a roar more ominous than anything I’ve ever heard.

The portable bleachers that are used to make a football stadium suitable for basketball shook beneath us. Overhead, the dome’s canvas roof rippled like a bed sheet. The cable-supported scoreboard — and the catwalks leading to it — began swaying. Tiny pieces of insulation descended on us like snowflakes.

Down on the court, embattled Alabama coach Mark Gottfried — who moments earlier was coaching for his professional life, dogged by rumors of his eminent dismissal — made a mad dart into the stands, grabbed his wife and kids, and ran for cover.

I looked at my wife. She looked at her dad. If one of us said something at that particular moment, I don’t remember it. We were 30 rows or so high in the portable bleachers, and with the adjacent aisle jammed with people, a quick escape wasn’t an option, even for Ronnie, the fleet-footed Vietnam vet.

To myself, I’m thinking earthquake — even though Atlanta, in my serviceable knowledge of geography, is nowhere near a fault line.

In this age of cell phones and PDAs (my Motorola Q, as is its tendency, wouldn’t work when I needed it), word spread quickly among the crowd that a tornado had just scored a direct hit on the Georgia Dome.

In my considerable Deep South experience, I’ve seen the aftermath of many tornadoes, though, fortunately, I’d never lived through one. So common are twisters in that region that they spurned a joke Mississippians like to tell about neighboring Arkansans.

What do a tornado and an Arkansas divorce have in common? Somebody’s gonna lose a trailer.

If decidedly irreverent and a cheap play on stereotypes, the joke has anecdotal basis in fact. Tornadoes are supposed to hit rural areas, not downtown Atlanta.

News reports would soon confirm the arena scuttlebutt. A twister packing 130 mph winds had struck the heart of downtown Atlanta, injuring 27 people — none, by the grace of God, in the Georgia Dome.

Wife Rhonda was perturbed that arena officials had made no announcement of impending bad weather, even though, it turns out, the area had been for several hours under a tornado watch and, eventually, a warning. I take her point.

In retrospect, though, I’m not sure what we — and our thousands of fellow hoops fans — would have done had we known. Walked outside?

There are indeed times in life when the old saying holds true: What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Ignorance, though hardly blissful, was a fine state of being for one stormy spring night in Atlanta.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.