The following is an account of April 27, 2011 as the North Texas men's golf team was in Alabama playing in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The travel party was Head Coach Brad Stracke, players Rodolfo Cazaubon, Curtis Donahoe, Josh Jones, Carlos Ortiz, Ty Spinella, and sports information director Steven Bartolotta.
It was supposed to be like any other day, the final round of the 2011 SBC Championship was going to present North Texas with a chance to capture the title. Little did we all know it would be a day nobody would soon not forget, I know I won't.
3:30 a.m. - I'm rooming with Coach Stracke, and it's around that time we are both awoken. Throughout the trip, I have been falsely accused of snoring, but this time it's something else. Tornado sirens are going off. We both hear it and take a peek outside our 4th floor balcony at the Marriott on the Shoals, and go back to sleep.
4:00 a.m. - More sirens, this time we are a little more worried. I left my laptop on overnight just in case, and we fire up the radar. "This looks bad" I tell Stracke. The rain starts to come in sideways for the next few hours and the wind is howling.
6:55 a.m. - I am finally awake, but Stracke is already awake. Tee times originally set for 7:30 are now pushed back. He tells me that he will take Curtis, Josh, and Ty to eat breakfast, and for me to take Carlos and Rodolfo a little later because their tee times are the last.
7:54 a.m. - The rain picks up again, I tell Rodo and Carlos that we are going to eat around 8:15 and I'll see them in the lobby.
8:14 a.m. - Stracke and the other players have already left Cracker Barrel, but Carlos, Rodo and myself arrive and place our orders. As we are eating, we are talking about how once this storm blows through we will probably get out there today. I kept telling them, "don't worry, this will blow right over." Little did I know.
8:58 a.m. - The weather worsens; the rain is coming down sideways. The three of us sit outside by the rocking chairs at the Cracker Barrel and wait a few minutes, its slows down just enough and we sprint to the car and head back to the hotel.
9:14 a.m. - It's a waiting game now. Stracke says the tee times are back to 12 p.m. This is the hard part. But the rain is letting up and we are starting to get a good vibe about the weather.
9:37 a.m. - Hotel had no TV because of the storm, so its internet surfing and radar watching for the two of us. I'm busy working on UIL track and field preparation for next week; Stracke is worrying about the weather.
10:02 a.m. - We both go out to the balcony and look at the clouds, it's a wicked view, and the storms are blowing in south to north at a speed like I've never seen. Stracke says "I think we are going to play." I didn't have the heart to show him the radar, I knew otherwise.
10:41 a.m. - The storms worsen, sirens are going off once again and like a fool, I'm on the balcony taking it all in. Being from Iowa, Stracke has seen this before. "This isn't good." He's right the clouds are moving in opposite directions, I start to get a little nervous as a wall cloud heads right for us. The rain and wind roar in and I'm worried.
11:08 a.m. - The text we didn't want. The tournament is cancelled. We leave the hotel and head to the course to pick up the awards for Carlos who won the tournament and the team runner-up trophy.
11:38 a.m. - We get to the course and clubhouse; they haven't had power since the morning. I see my friend Mitch Hyder of Denver, their play-by-play guy who was there helping the SBC with coverage. He tells me how when the sirens went off, a lot of the teams that were already at the course, were shuttled underneath the clubhouse into the area where they store the carts. A dungeon for 45 minutes before the all-clear was given.
12:24 p.m. - Awards and trophies picked up, time to head off to Huntsville for American Airlines flight 1254, that was scheduled to leave at 5:25 p.m.
1:33 p.m.- We arrive at the airport, but at the last minute, I realize that I haven't gassed up the rental, I better do that because I don't want to see the look on our business manager Mike Ashbaugh's face if he sees a $150 gas bill because I forgot to get gas. As we are driving, the clouds around the area are as wicked and nasty as I've ever seen in my life.
2:15 p.m. We are checked in and eating lunch in the terminal across from our gate, a wall cloud forms in the distance. We are all mesmerized by it and start watching as it races over our heads. We notice a few twists in the cloud, but nothing comes down. A monster rain soon follows.
3:10 p.m. - It's still nasty out, but we are hanging out at the gate. I'm returning a few emails on my laptop. One was to Travis Llewellyn of the Sun Belt Conference. After a few laughs about our day, he sends one last email that simply reads "STAY SAFE." I chuckled it off.
4:08 p.m. - Things aren't getting better. I'm dialed into every radar I can find and watch and warning list on the internet. The tornado warning advisory's list for Alabama alone was staggering. Every two or three minutes it was popping up. I jokingly tell Jones that the bubble wrap around the runner-up trophy is mine when the tornado comes ripping through.
4:41 p.m. - The flight from DFW arrives. I laugh and say "that pilot needs a bonus for landing in this weather"
5:01 p.m. - By now we realize our flight isn't leaving on time. It's at this time, TSA agents and police officers are roaming the terminal and start telling everyone to get away from the windows, there is big wind out there. After the lights had been flickering for about 20 minutes, the entire airport loses power.
5:45 p.m. - The storms blow over and now is our chance to leave. Except we can't board because the jet bridge has no power. So we wait.
5:56 p.m. - The grounds crew realizes power isn't coming back anytime soon and they decide they will push the jet bridge back by hand. We are escorted down the jet way by officers with flashlights to guide us.
6:07 p.m. - Everyone is on the plane, we are ready to leave. I sit in my usual seat of 29F on American Airlines. I always sit in that one; I just like to hear the roar of the engine. It was a great decision this time. I can tell the flight crew is anxious to leave; they are trying to get everyone in their seats.
6:18 p.m. - We start to taxi our way to the runway slowly; the rain starts to fall again. It's picking up pretty fast by now and the lighting off in the distance is getting closer.
6:23 p.m. - I see out of the corner of my eye a US Airways plane pushing back from the gate. "Man I hope they don't beat us to the runway" I'm thinking. They do. By this time the wind, rain, and lighting are getting fierce.
6:25 p.m. - I'm starting to wonder about taking off in this. I lean forward to Stracke who is in the seat in front of me and say "Dude, there is no way we are taking off in this."
6:26 p.m. - The US Airways flight takes off right before us. The rain and lighting are getting scarier by the second. The dark cloud off in the distance is now right on top of us. We roll onto the runway. I'm thinking "well, here we go."
6:27 p.m. - We slowly start down the runway, the wind is really picking up, I hear the roar of the engine as we are about to go. Then we make a sharp veer off to the left. We aren't taking off we are going back to the gate. Fast.
6:28 p.m. - What was almost a 10-minute taxi ride out to the runway, was a 1-minute jaunt back to the gate. We were in trouble. The plane raced back to the gate on the opposite side of the terminal. We stopped at the gate. A stewardess came on and said we are exiting the plane now, leave your bags, and exit immediately.
6:29 p.m. There is a problem, we can't exit the plane from the front, there is no power at the airport and the jet bridge isn't functioning. The pilot comes on and says that we have to exit the plane from the rear, fast. Next thing I hear is the rear door open and a ground crew member urging everyone off.
6:32 p.m. - The pilot comes back on and says for everyone to stop exiting the plane. Only a mother and her daughter and two firefighter's right behind me were off. I'm thinking the tornado is about to hit us. Less than 30 seconds later the pilot comes tearing down the aisle to make sure the exit is clear. The firefighters who came back onto the plane tell the pilot there isn't any time, we have to go.
6:34 p.m. We are sprinting off the plane; Stracke is right next to me. The kids not far behind. We are told to turn at an ice machine on the tarmac, head up the stairs, into the terminal and into the bathrooms. We make it up and into the terminal. The first bathroom is packed. We head down to the next one. It's packed as well. We are just on the outside. No one is panicked at all; everyone is very calm in an otherwise tense situation. TSA agents and airport security however are yelling at people to get away from the windows and stay inside or near the bathrooms.
6:40 p.m. After some times passes, we get the all clear and are allowed to leave and head back to the gates. Everyone is pretty relieved. As I'm talking with some of the guys, they are saying they saw the swirl of a funnel cloud over the plane. I hear other passengers say the same thing. I'm asking myself "Did we almost take off in a tornado?"
7:02 p.m. - Power remains out at the airport and we overhear some gate agents saying they have been told not to expect it to return for at least 3 or 4 days.
7:09 p.m. - The flight situation was still a mystery; our pilot grabs the intercom mic and tries to explain the situation. It's broken. So he gathers us around, explains the situation. We aren't out of the woods yet. Two more cells are coming and until those pass, we aren't going anywhere.
7:36 p.m. - The guys and Stracke are gathered watching some TV when an airport security guard is in the area. We all start talking about what happened and he said there were three tornados on the ground. He also said earlier that the windows on the terminal nearly buckled earlier in the day. We were all shocked. Meanwhile, team jokester Carlos Ortiz starts saying "What are we going to do now, we don't have any food, no water, no power, we are going to die here"......then he breaks out in a smile and so does everyone else.
7:59 p.m. - Somehow in the midst of the airport not having power, the TV's remained on. We were watching the coverage of the total devastation in all of Alabama. It was sobering to see.
8:12 p.m. - A small dinner is gathered as we buy the last of the sandwiches in the airport and the guys chow down on food. No update on the flight as another storm rumbles over and the wind is picking up again. The guys remained in good spirits but most were worried about getting back so they could go to class. Ever the bad influence, I told them "if we don't make it back tonight, don't worry about class, nobody goes on Friday's, I never did."
8:48 p.m. - As we sit and wait, the guys continue to give Stracke a hard time about his bold claim of being able to do 60 pushups in one sitting without stopping. Spinella calls him out on it and proceeds to do 25 pushups. By this time the airport is muggy as all get out.
8:58 p.m. - The weather has let up and we finally get word we are ready to board again. Half of the passengers on the original flight have left they had connections and were going to try again tomorrow. We entered the plane from the ground this time, no power, no jet bridge.
9:03 p.m. - We climbed aboard the plane form the rear again and got settled in. As we were ready to leave one of the stewardesses said, "ready for round 2."
9:10 p.m. - Flight 1254 pulls away from the terminal once again, we taxi to the runway, and then things come to another grinding halt just short of the runway. It seems there is a discrepancy in the head count on the plane and what the gate agent had. More waiting.
9:25 p.m. - Stracke, back one seat in front of me turns and says "We need to get outta here" I concur.
9:35 p.m. - Still no movement on the head count issue, despite multiple passes by the stewardesses. Another passenger is next to me and we start talking. He's a local who says he's never seen weather like this ever. He tells me earlier in the day at his place of business, he had never seen it so bad that he told his employees to take cover, something he's never done. We recount each of our experiences in getting off the plane early and he says to me, "You know there were two tornados on the ground right?" I didn't really want to believe him, but he was right.
9:46 p.m. - Flight 1254 takes off from Huntsville.
11:38 p.m. - We land at DFW airport. After a short taxi to the gate, we finally exit the plan. I tell Stracke to tell the guys good luck at regionals.
12:25 a.m. - After nearly a 24-hour experience, the enormity of the situation finally hit home after listening to the radio about the devastation in all of Alabama when I hit the driveway. We were the lucky ones, so many others weren't. They are the true survivors of the day.