Whenever a storm hits while the Dallas Cowboys are inside their practice facility, the sound of rain pelting the tent-like structure can drown out conversation. No matter the noise, safety rarely was an issue — until Saturday.
Wind that was just shy of tornado strength, and perhaps stronger, ripped through the roof during a rookie minicamp practice, essentially popping the so-called bubble.
Between the falling debris and the furor to get out, special teams coach Joe DeCamillis broke his back and another staff member, Rich Behm, 33, was left paralyzed after the practice facility collapse.
A federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation on the collapse is currently underway, authorities said.
Behm suffered a spine fracture that caused permanent paralysis from the waist down.
DeCamillis, hired a few months ago, will need surgery to fix “a couple of broken vertebrae” in his lower back but is expected to recover, said his father-in-law, Dan Reeves, the longtime NFL coach.
DeCamillis and Behm were among 11 people taken away by emergency vehicles. Two others went to hospitals on their own.
About 60 others felt lucky to escape with only cuts and bruises.
“I saw it coming down and didn’t have time to react,” secondary coach Dave Campo said. “I hit the ground and was able to get back up.”
“Right now, I think we don’t have anybody who is in a life-threatening situation,” said Dr. Paul Pepe, head of emergency medical services for Dallas County.
Those with more serious injuries included a person with a head injury, one with an open fracture below the knee and someone who was impaled with metal, said Tommy Gonzalez, Irving’s city manager.
Names of the injured were not released due to privacy issues. Players were told not to discuss the episode with reporters.
Just before the facility was flattened, wind was clocked at 64 mph, a single mph shy of the threshold for a weak tornado. However, National Weather Service meteorologist Gary Woodall said a “microburst” may have pushed the wind beyond 70 mph at the top of the structure. A microburst also was to blame for a 1985 Delta Airlines crash at nearby DFW airport that killed 137 people.
“The fact that there weren’t more injuries is rather miraculous,” Woodall said.
Also incredible: An Irving police spokesman said there was hardly any damage beyond the Cowboys’ facility.
Before Bill Parcells was hired as coach in 2003, the Cowboys rarely practiced indoors, unless weather was bad enough for them to ride buses to a high school team’s bubble. Parcells suggested that owner Jerry Jones build one, and it was finished in time for Parcells’ first season at a cost of more than $4 million.
The no-frills building was pretty much a 100-yard football field with a few more yards of clearance all the way around. The roof was 80 feet high, the equivalent of an eight-story building.
On Saturday, there were 27 players — almost all drafted last weekend or signed as undrafted rookies — working out when the storm hit. Also in the building were coaches, support staff and media.
Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com escaped, but was knocked down by something hitting his back. He then heard someone screaming for help and realized it was coming from under a door frame. He recognized that it was Todd Archer of The Dallas Morning News because of a tattoo on his ankle.
Eatman and colleague Josh Ellis tried freeing Archer but the structure wouldn’t budge. “It was like a car,” Eatman said. Then safety DeAngelo Smith and linebacker Brandon Williams managed to lift it just enough for Archer to squirm out.
“I was trapped. I couldn’t move,” said Archer, who figures he was down 20 to 25 seconds. “Then those guys lifted it up — not very far, but I was able to move from my side to my back. … Once I got out of there, I looked back and the whole thing was down.”
Eatman said one of the swaying lights wound up more than two football fields away. The giant blue star atop the building lay crumpled on the ground. The storm knocked out power at team headquarters and splintered trees across the property. Power was out at team headquarters for about an hour.
“We’re lucky no one got electrocuted with all the water in the building,” head coach Wade Phillips said.
Larry Rodriguez, a television cameraman who in 2005 was attacked by Kenny Rogers while filming the former Texas Rangers pitcher, received six stitches to close a cut on a hand.
The team canceled Sunday’s practice, the final one for the rookies. The first voluntary full-squad minicamp is May 19-21.
Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.
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