NFC East: Reggie Herring

The terrifying story at Valley Ranch

May, 5, 2009
5/05/09
10:45
AM ET
 
  AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
  The Dallas Cowboys' practice field bubble lies on the ground after it collapsed following a storm in Irving, Texas, on Saturday.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

IRVING, Texas -- As the skies over the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters grew ominous Saturday afternoon, the obvious decision was to hold practice indoors. As is the custom during a rookie minicamp or any other practice, a member of the Cowboys' public relations staff escorted reporters past the outdoor practice fields toward the club's 80,000-square-foot indoor facility, where players and coaches had already gathered.

There was no indication that in less than an hour, many of them would be fearing for their lives. What follows is an attempt to piece together what happened in those chaotic moments after winds of up to 70 mph treated an enormous structure as if it were a toy. In conversations with reporters, video journalists and members of the Cowboys' organization, we've tried to reconstruct some of Saturday's events. Because club employees have been told not to speak to the media, they've been granted anonymity for this story.

Cowboys Facility Collapse
• VIDEO: Footage from collapse
• PHOTOS: The collapse

At about 3:15 p.m. local time Saturday, heavy rains began pounding the fabric-covered indoor facility at Valley Ranch. People who are used to being in the facility during rainstorms immediately recognized a louder roar than usual. A group of reporters and cameramen from four local TV affiliates was in its normal position near the south end zone while players went through team drills. As the rain continued to pelt the facility, Todd Archer of The Dallas Morning News remarked to public relations assistant Jancy Briles, "I wonder what this thing's wind resistance is?"

In a few moments, he would have his answer. The first major sign of trouble was the violent swaying of lights high above the field. At that moment, several people in the building became concerned that one of the lights -- about 3 to 4 feet in diameter -- might drop on a player or coach. Fox 4 cameraman Larry Rodriguez looked up and spotted Cowboys videographer Sam Cromley 40 feet above the field on a hydraulic lift.

"Sam's platform was waving back and forth like a flag," Rodriguez said. "And pretty soon after that, the whole building started to shake. It felt like you were in a ship."

The team's director of videography, Robert Blackwell, ordered Cromley to come down, but it was too late. As the roof and walls began to fold like an accordion, Cromley remained on the platform and basically rode it down to the ground. In some of the video footage captured by local TV affiliates, you can hear Cowboys assistant linebackers coach Dat Nguyen yelling, "Sam, Sam, Sam" as he rushed over to help Cromley escape from underneath the facility's vinyl covering.

Nearby, one offensive lineman could be seen wrapping his arms and legs around one of the few poles that hadn't fallen. He apparently thought a tornado had hit the building, and he was holding on for dear life. For some, the most haunting thing was the initial sound they heard when the building began to implode.

"To me, it sounded like bubble wrap," said Rodriguez, who suffered a laceration on his hand that required nine stitches. "You could just hear everything popping and snapping around you."

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