Possible tornado tears through Atlanta

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">The roof and much of the side walls on the top floor of the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts are open to the sky in Atlanta Saturday, March 15, 2008, after heavy winds from a tornado roared through Atlanta Friday night, causing more than 20 injuries and millions of dollars in damage. &#40;Dave Martin&#47;AP Photo&#41;</span></div>
March 15, 2008 3:12:44 AM PDT
A possible tornado tore through Atlanta, causing damage and fraying nerves.Crews hadn't even had time to assess the damage from the apparent twister that ripped through downtown, smashing skyscraper windows, sucking furniture out of hotel rooms, crumbling part of an apartment building and rattling a packed sports arena, before they braced for another storm on Saturday.

An even larger system than the one that hit Friday night was forecast to move through northern Georgia starting at daybreak, bringing heavy rains and high winds to the area, said Vaughn Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Peachtree City. Crews were expected to be in downtown Atlanta then to determine whether Friday's damage was caused by a tornado, he said.

At an early morning news conference, Mayor Shirley Franklin called the storm "what we now know was a tornado." But weather service officials continued to say only that a "possible tornado" hit around 9:40 p.m., accompanied by a storm packing 60 mph winds.

At least 20 people were hurt. Streets around the Georgia Dome, Phillips Arena, the CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park were littered with broken glass, downed power lines, crumbled bricks, insulation and even the occasional office chair. Billboards collapsed onto parked cars. Stunned fans from the arenas and hotel guests wandered through the debris in disbelief.

"It was crazy. There was a lot of windows breaking and stuff falling," said Terrence Evans, a valet who was about to park a car at the Omni Hotel when the apparent twister hit.

A tornado warning had been issued for downtown a few minutes before.

There was no announcement of the approaching storm for the 18,000 fans inside the Georgia Dome for the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament. The first sign was a rumbling from above and the rippling of the Fiberglas fabric roof. Catwalks swayed and insulation rained down on players during overtime of the Mississippi State-Alabama game, sending fans fleeing toward the exits and the teams to their locker rooms.

"I thought it was a tornado or a terrorist attack," said Mississippi State guard Ben Hansbrough, whose team won 69-67 after an hourlong delay under a roof with at least two visible tears. A later game between Georgia and Kentucky was postponed. SEC officials said the tournament's remaining games would be played at Georgia Tech.

"Ironically, the guy behind me got a phone call saying there was a tornado warning," fan Lisa Lynn said. "And in two seconds, we heard the noise and things started to shake. It was creepy."

A half-mile away, the sign of the Phillips Arena parking garage was left mangled by the storm, but basketball fans inside the arena noticed little disruption during a game between the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers.

Most of the damage from the storm was concentrated in downtown Atlanta. Power was knocked out to about 19,000 customers. Authorities blocked off roads around the CNN Center, where heavy debris filled the streets. A chair from the building's lobby sat in the middle of the street, flanked by cars crushed by fallen debris.

Atlanta Fire Department Capt. Bill May said the department was working "multiple incidents" and that part of a loft apartment building collapsed, but he did not know if there were any injuries.

The loft apartment building, built in an old cotton mill - had severe damage to one corner, and appeared to have major roof damage. Fire officials said it "pancaked," and they were uncertain whether all the occupants had escaped.

Darlys Walker, property manager for the lofts, told WSB-TV there was one minor injury.

Taylor Morris, 29, who lives near the lofts, said he and his girlfriend took shelter in the bathroom when the storm passed over in a matter of 15 to 20 seconds.

"The whole house was shaking," he said. "We didn't know what was going on."

He said shingles and a sheet of plywood were ripped from his roof and tossed into a neighbor's tree.

Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Buzz Weiss said at least 20 people were transported to hospitals from damaged areas across the city. He did not know the severity of the injuries or the condition of the victims. Grady Memorial Hospital, the city's large public hospital where many of the injured were taken, had broken windows but was operating as usual.

Kendra Gerlach, spokeswoman for Atlanta Medical Center, said late Friday the hospital was treating about five patients in the emergency department. She said each patient suffered minor injuries with only cuts, scraps and bruises.

May said a vacant building also collapsed, with no apparent injuries. Weiss said state officials and the American Red Cross were setting up a shelter at a senior center to house more than 100 people displaced by the storm.

Officials were unsure of the extent of the damage, he said, but said it "seems to be a little more widespread than it initially appeared." The Fulton County Emergency Management Agency will comb downtown at sunrise to survey damage, Weiss said.

"One thing that concerns is greatly is we have more bad weather moving in," he said.

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

In East Atlanta, 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 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.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the most recent tornado to hit a major city's downtown was on Aug. 12, 2004, in Jacksonville, Fla. Downtown tornadoes have also struck Fort Worth, Texas; Salt Lake City, Little Rock, Ark.; and Nashville, Tenn., in the past decade.

If confirmed, the tornado would be the first in recorded history to hit downtown Atlanta, said Smith, the meteorologist. The last tornado to strike inside the city was in 1975, and it hit the governor's mansion north of downtown, he said.

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