Tornado sweeps through St. Louis airport

The city's main airport is shut down after storm leaves several injured

Topics: Natural Disasters, Air Travel,

Tornado sweeps through St. Louis airportStorm damage is seen next to a parking garage outside terminal one at St. Louis International Airport Friday, April 22, 2011, in St. Louis. Several people at Lambert Airport in St. Louis were injured Friday after an apparent tornado touched down, spewing debris over the airfield, bursting glass in the concourse and damaging cars atop a parking garage. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Credit: AP)

St. Louis’ main airport was closed for business Saturday while crews cleaned up after an apparent tornado tore through a terminal, causing several injuries and sending people scurrying for shelter as plated glass shattered around them.

Friday evening’s storm at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport ripped away a large section of the main terminal’s roof, forcing the airport to close indefinitely and diverting incoming flights to other cities.

Elsewhere around St. Louis, residents in suburbs were waking to damaged homes, fallen trees and downed power lines — the remains of a fierce line of storms that moved through central and eastern Missouri.

“We have all hands on deck here,” Mayor Francis Slay said at the airport. “This is something we’re putting a lot of attention to.”

But amid all the damage, there was relief that things could have been worse. Only four people with minor injuries were taken to the hospital from Lambert, while an unspecified number of others were treated at the scene for cuts blamed on flying glass.

“We’re fortunate we didn’t have larger (numbers) of injuries,” said airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.

The airport’s main terminal sustained the most damage. Hamm-Niebruegge said roughly half of that structure’s windows were blown out, sending glass and rain into that building. Elsewhere on the property, trees were toppled and power lines downed, further limiting access to the airport even hours after the storm left its destruction.

Passengers from at least two planes were stranded briefly on the Lambert tarmac because of debris but were later taken away by buses. An Air National Guard facility at the airport was reportedly damaged.

Unconfirmed tornadoes were reported in several counties in the St. Louis area, and at one point utility company Ameren Missouri reported more than 47,000 power outages, with another 7,000 reported in Illinois.

In the suburbs of Maryland Heights and New Melle, the storms damaged several dozen homes but there were no immediate reports of major injuries. Some playground equipment in New Melle was left in a twisted heap by the storm that also tore up roofs and ripped off siding.

Brandon Blecher, 16, said he was home watching the storm out his window in Maryland Heights when he spotted the tornado coming toward his house. A gust of wind knocked out his window.



“The giant wooden swing set in my neighbor’s yard came into my yard and a shed landed on my deck,” he said. “The tornado was right on top of us.”

Maryland Heights police were dealing with reports of gas leaks and downed trees that were blocking roadways.

The city’s community center was opened as a shelter Friday night for residents affected by the storm.

“We have electricity, and everything’s fine,” Vaughn said. “We have heat and air. We’ll be here as long as we need to be.”

Damage, possibly from a tornado, was also reported at several towns near the airport — Bridgeton, St. Ann, Ferguson and Florissant. Interstate 270 in that area was closed. Trees and power lines were down. A tractor-trailer was sitting on its end.

In downtown St. Louis, Busch Stadium officials hurriedly moved Cardinals fans to a safe area as tornado sirens blared. The game with the Cincinnati Reds was delayed for hours but later resumed.

At Lambert, installation and roofing tile was strewn about the inside and outside of one terminal. Large, plate-glass windows were blown out. A shuttle was teetering precariously from the top level of a parking garage.

Dianna Merrill, 43, a mail carrier from St. Louis, was at Lambert waiting to fly to New York with a friend for vacation. She said her flight had been delayed by weather and she was looking out a window hoping her plane would pull up. But the window suddenly exploded.

“Glass was blowing everywhere. The ceiling was falling. The glass was hitting us in the face. Hail and rain were coming in. The wind was blowing debris all over the place,” she said. “It was like being in a horror movie. Grown men were crying. It was horrible.”

Merrill said she felt lucky to be alive and that airport workers quickly moved people to stairwells and bathrooms to get them out of harm’s way.

St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch, who was at the airport when the storm was closing in, said he saw gawkers watching the weather outside as the tornado sirens blared. Moments later, they hastily scrambled inside the building and sought shelter in a restroom.

“About the time we came into the building, the doors blew off,” he said. “Literally 10 seconds later, it was over. It’s amazing to me more people weren’t hurt.”

Gov. Jay Nixon announced late Friday he had declared a state of emergency, allowing state agencies to assist local jurisdictions with their emergency responses to the storm’s aftermath, including the destruction at Lambert.

“The state of Missouri is ready to assist at every stage of this emergency to keep Missouri families safe and help communities recover,” Nixon said.

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