Last Saturday night, Starkville was under a tornado warning, sustaining flooding and damage from the high winds and heavy rain. During the inclement weather, controversy arose from the actions taken by local bar and restaurant Bin 612, for their treatment of patrons during the tornado warning.
Sara Beth Pritchard, a Mississippi State University junior studying communication, was at the Bin with her roommate when the tornado warning was issued.
"When we all started getting word, there was actually a tornado on Blackjack, and it was moving toward campus, the bartender stood up on the bar and told everyone there was a ‘a big storm coming’ and to close their tabs because they were shutting down," Pritchard said. "People behind us started pushing and yelling because the bartenders were in the crowd yelling and screaming at everyone to get out."
Pritchard and her roommate left as the situation was escalating.
"I was super scared, and we didn’t really know what to do but we didn’t have much of an option so when everyone kept yelling and pushing we just got really scared and started running towards our car," Pritchard said.
Pritchard said her car was parked near campus.
"We ran from the (Cotton) District to almost the bridge going onto campus to get back to our car, and this was when the tornado was hitting campus," Pritchard said.
MSU alumnus Richie Long, who was present during the incident at the Bin, said the situation escalated when patrons resisted leaving the establishment.
"Bouncers announced the Bin would be closing immediately, gave us about 4-5 minutes to get out," Long said. "All the while it was pouring raining and a reported tornado had touched down in Starkville at the same time. We were all calling Uber/Lyft to get a ride home and the bouncers formed a line to push everyone out into the storm. Everyone in the bar resisted standing in the storm/tornado warning and a brawl occurred."
The police were called about the disturbance and soon arrived on the scene.
"At 10:30 p.m., the Starkville Police Department received the report of a disturbance in progress at Bin 612 who was attempting to close their business and ‘approximately one hundred people were trying to fight security from leaving the building and trying to stay inside at this time,'" a media release from Starkville PD stated.
Social media blew up about the incident, reporting police using pepper spray to subdue patrons.
According to the Starkville PD media release, pepper spray was used on one patron involved in a physical altercation and the man was released shortly after.
"The Starkville Police Department did not initiate an evacuation of Bin 612, 612 University Drive or any other business during the time," the media release stated.
Ty Thames, owner of Bin 612, released a statement Sunday about the incident.
Thames said the building was inadequately equipped to shelter the number of patrons present at the time from the inclement weather.
"There is no adequate indoor shelter space for what was in excess of 250 people. All indoor spaces in the restaurant face the exterior wall to wall glass windows. There is an underground storage cellar that was utilized and able to provide shelter for approximately 15 people," Thames said.
Thames said the decision to evacuate the establishment in efforts of giving patrons time to find a safer place was also made at four other Cotton District restaurants.
Many of the complaints about the restaurant’s handling of the situation were regarding the aggressive language and behavior of the Bin's employees telling the customers to leave.
Several videos circulating social media confirm the inappropriate language used by employees.
"We certainly do not condone the language or aggressive behavior of any of the security company’s personnel or our staff. We know that the intent of the security personnel and our staff was to prevent serious injuries from occurring inside of glass enclosed rooms. The intent was for people to leave with time to get to a safe space, including the underground parking garage directly across the street," Thames said.
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said she knows the Bin’s intent was for safety for their patrons, but the incident can be a learning experience for everyone.
"I thought that their concern was legitimate. They are community members and I know that they wanted their patrons to be safe so I think it’s a matter of us all learning how we can do better as it relates to this kind of event," Spruill said.
Spruill said she spoke with Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Agency Director Kristen Campanella, and the city will be initiating research into the best safe spaces around the county.
"I think the takeaway from this is how to respond better and how to make (storm safety) information available," Spruill said.
Spruill said the city is still investigating police actions during the incident.