Pierce experiences the chaos of ‘bizarre’ SEC Tournament
In Mar. 22 issue, Russell County News By Derek Aaron Russell County News Editor
Russell County School Superintendent Scott Pierce wasn’t planning on being in Atlanta last weekend to watch the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament, but it was his wife, Brenda, who encouraged him to take some time off so the two could go.
He ordered his tickets and made reservations at the Hyatt and decided the weekend getaway to Georgia was a good idea.
“I knew (Mississippi State) Coach (Rick) Stansbury at Campbellsville University,” Pierce said. He also said he knew Mississippi State Assistant Coach Phil Cunningham “since he was a boy” and worked with Cunningham’s father at Campbellsville.
Pierce said he went because his wife wanted him to and he would get to catch up with some friends he hadn’t seen in a while. Those facts, coupled with his desire to watch the Kentucky Wildcats in action, led him to the Georgia Dome on Thursday for the opening round of the tournament.
But to the west, strong storms were brewing that would soon wreak havoc on downtown Atlanta and Pierce’s weekend plans.
Following some great opening round games last Thursday, Pierce again made his way to the large dome on Friday night to watch Stansbury’s Bulldogs face Alabama and then Kentucky and Georgia.
The tornado hit while Alabama and Mississippi State were in overtime of their quarterfinal game.
“You know when students stomp their feet real fast and make a noise, a rumbling sound,” he said. “I thought that the fans on the far side were rumbling their feet,” he said about a loud noise he began to hear.
From where Pierce was sitting behind the Mississippi State bench he could see across the dome, in the upper deck when people began to notice something was happening outside the 25,000 person dome.
“(The fans) turned around and looked behind them and that noise kept getting louder,” he said. “It did sound like a train, you know you always here people say that but it sounded like a train.”
The National Weather Service has since confirmed it was indeed a tornado that damaged the dome, sending debris falling from the ceiling and people toward the exits, as well as much of downtown Atlanta.
“I saw the side panels on the dome split; one of them split and flew back,” he said. “Then I looked up and a bank of lights in the upper arena flickered and went out.” Panels as long as 25 feet were blown off the structures side, various media outlets reported.
He said the big video scoreboard which was hanging from the ceiling over mid-court as well as the dome’s skywalk was violently moving. “Then stuff started falling and the players stopped and looked up,” at the scene, he said.
From Pierce’s seat he had been close enough to talk with a Georgia state trooper who told him he had heard that a tornado was approaching. The trooper allowed Pierce and his wife to go down in the tunnel where the players had gone.
The two teams were able to finish after a delay of more than an hour when Mississippi State won 69-67. But Pierce didn’t get to see the last game Friday between Georgia and Kentucky as it was called off after the 16-year-old dome was deemed unsafe by SEC officials for play the rest of the weekend.
Pierce said the scenes outside the Georgia Dome were unbelievable. He spoke of seeing the World Congress Center without a roof and a collapsed wall, windows missing out of the CNN Center and the old Omni Hotel. He said the tornado went over the edge of the dome before taking the top off the Congress Center.
The SEC took unprecedented measures and moved the tournament to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, capacity 9,191 and nearly two miles from the Georgia Dome, for the remainder of the tournament to be played.
Only cheerleaders, school bands, parents, girlfriends, media and personnel with pass credentials allowed in for the game. That meant the thousands of UK fans that traveled to Atlanta would have to leave without ever seeing the Wildcats play a game. The SEC is still considering ticket refund proposals as of press time, six days later.
But Pierce was an exception and he doesn’t even understand how he was allowed into the coliseum for the game.
“They made this announcement that they were only going to let 400 people in (from each school),” he said. “The problem was when we got down there we got a little card from the SEC that was a bus pass and I didn’t think much of that pass at the time.” Later on, the bus pass proved to be his ticket into the UK-Georgia game on Saturday morning.
He explained that all remaining SEC schools were given 400 passes but only a small number of people were allowed in the venue. That, he said, left the allotment of tickets for people that wouldn’t have been in otherwise.
“I’m thinking that Kentucky fans went to the people from them other schools and got tickets,” he said.
Still, many were turned away at the gate as average fans were told they couldn’t attend the game.
Pierce said the PA announced that 1,400 people were in attendance but he guessed there was a bit more than that.
“The bus pass allowed me to ride a bus out there and when I got out there they just handed me a ticket,” he said.
He said the game information was printed on Georgia Dome ticket but that the venue had been changed to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on it as well.
He explained the tickets were printed around 4 a.m. Saturday morning and the seating in the new venue was on a first come-first serve basis. The game, which Georgia won in overtime, never seemed like a collegiate game, Pierce said.
He compared the sights and sounds of Saturday’s UK game to a “pickup game.”
Pierce said he believed very few people were allowed inside because of security issues.
He said the venue had some event staff, only one Georgia Tech police officer and two Atlanta city police officers.
Most of the police were in the city, where more than a dozen people were injured, helping to maintain order.
“It was just a bizarre thing,” he said. “Very unusual.”
He said his getting into the game was just pure luck and the bus pass he had been given allowed him a ticket.
Pierce said he was going to hold on to the bus pass as a reminder of his crazy, storm-filled weekend in Atlanta.
“The amazing thing about it is the good Lord didn’t allow anyone (in Atlanta) to get killed,” he said. “It was amazing.”
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