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DeCamillis suffers broken back as storm levels Cowboys' facility, injures 12

IRVING, Texas -- Whenever a storm hit while the Dallas Cowboys were inside their practice facility, the sound of rain pelting the tent-like structure could drown out conversation. No matter the noise, safety rarely was an issue -- until Saturday.

Winds that were 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 escape, Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis broke his back, and 11 other people suffered injuries and required hospitalization.

About 60 others felt lucky to escape with only cuts and bruises.

"I saw it coming down and didn't have time to react," Cowboys secondary coach Dave Campo said. "I hit the ground and was able to get back up."

DeCamillis, hired by the Cowboys a few months ago, likely 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, a longtime NFL coach.

DeCamillis was among 10 people taken away by emergency vehicles. Two others went to hospitals on their own.

"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 people and more details about their injuries weren't released because of privacy issues. Players were told not to discuss the episode with reporters.

Just before the facility was flattened, winds were clocked at 64 mph, only one mph shy of the threshold for a weak tornado. However, National Weather Service meteorologist Gary Woodall said a "microburst" might 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 that killed 137 people at nearby Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

"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. But Parcells suggested that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones build an indoor facility, and it was finished in time for the coach's 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 it. The roof was 80 feet high, the equivalent of an eight-story building.

On Saturday, 27 players -- almost all drafted last weekend or signed as undrafted rookies -- were working out when the storm hit. Also in the building were coaches, support staff and media members.

Nick Eatman of escaped, but he 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. Eatman recognized that it was Todd Archer, a The Dallas Morning News reporter, because of a tattoo on his ankle.

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Eatman and colleague Josh Ellis tried to free Archer, but the structure wouldn't budge. "It was like a car," Eatman said. Then Cowboys safety DeAngelo Smith and linebacker Brandon Williams managed to lift it just enough for Archer to squirm out to safety.

"I was trapped. I couldn't move," said Archer, who figures he was down for 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 from the facility. The giant blue star normally atop the building lay crumpled on the ground. The storm knocked out power for about an hour at team headquarters and splintered trees across the property.

"We're lucky no one got electrocuted with all the water in the building," Cowboys 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 Cowboys canceled Sunday's practice, the final one for the rookies. Instead, players will have a meeting at the complex, but media will not have access, according to a statement released by the team.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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