OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.
- May 31, 2013. I'll never forget it.
As the Oklahoma City Barons were preparing for Game 4 of the AHL Western Conference Final, a massive tornado was barreling in on the Cox Convention Center.
Due to the conditions described by local reporters as "explosively unstable," it was expected to be an eventful afternoon in the OKC metro area. As a result, at about 4:00p.m. CT, a PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) tornado watch was issued for most of central Oklahoma.
About an hour before puck drop and with all eyes glued on the radar and local TV stations from the press box, a tornado had touched down west of the city and was on a collision course with the downtown area. I quickly ventered outside to see what could be seen of the incoming storm, but it was far too dark to make anything out.
But it was huge. Never in my life have I seen a cell that size.
"We knew there was a possibility of it (all day)," said Barons centre Chris VandeVelde, who lives in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond.
Ten minutes before the warm-up was scheduled to begin, it was announced that the game would be delayed until the storm had passed. Twenty minutes later, another announcement was made as the tornado crawled closer.
Nine people were killed as the storm rolled through the town of El Reno, many of whom were stranded on the interstate.
Finally, at about 6:45p.m. CT and with the tornado still traveling east on I-40, it was time to evacuate. Everyone -- players, coaches, fans, Barons and Cox Convention Center staff -- calmly walked down to the arena's underground parking garage.
Huddling in the southernmost corner, VandeVelde stood to my right. Rocking his infant son, Levin, and holding the hand of his wife, Olivia, radio reports indicated that the tornado had avoided the downtown area.
At one point power was lost, darkening the garage completely and causing hundreds to scream in fear.
Fortunately, the terror was short lived and electricity was soon restored.
"A lot of the families came over early because of the shelter downstairs," said VandeVelde. "It's important to have them there and the coaches were good with that.
"It's better to be safe than sorry."
When it was safe to do so, an estimated 2,000-3,000 people wandered back upstairs and into the arena bowl. But while the tornado threat had passed, the furious thunderstorm caused severe water leaks in all four corners of the building.
The broadcast booth was most severely hit. When we wandered up to assist the Voice of the Barons, Jim Byers, it was completely under water and more was rushing in. Racing against the unknown, all the electronics were safely removed and the area was quickly evacuated.
With cleanup efforts in full swing, spectators were all asked to move to the west side of the building as rivers and small lakes were channeled down stairwells, as far away from the ice surface as possible.
At this point, I grabbed my camera and shot everything I could.
The game was postponed shortly thereafter, but fans stayed in the building for a little while longer to wait out the ongoing storm, which pounded the downtown area until the early morning hours.
"Both teams were down there, so no one had any advantage," said VandeVelde when asked if he would have been ready to play. "We might have started out a bit slow, but we would have gotten our legs under us. It was very hot down there and guys were sweating and standing around for a while, but other than that, we would have been ready.
"The building was in tough shape."
When players were eventually allowed to go home at about 9:00p.m. CT, crews were still working feverishly to try and remove standing water from the Barons dressing room, which was one of the more heavily impacted areas of the building.
"It's come a long way (from last night)," laughed VandeVelde at Saturday's morning skate. "They got a lot of fans in there and took some the ceiling tiles down that had a lot of water build-up, but other than that it's going to be ready and we're going back in there now.
"It would have been fun to play last night, but they're looking out for our families and we appreciate that."
Thank you to everyone -- Barons and Cox Convention Center staff, weather experts and everyone in between -- for keeping us safe.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick