St. Louis’ main airport was closed for business Saturday while crews cleaned up after a 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 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.
National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said it was possible that a tornado that touched down near the St. Charles County town of New Melle was the one that ripped into the airport and apparently other parts of St. Louis County.
“We think it touched down at New Melle and maybe lifted up and touched down again at the airport,” Truett said. “We still have to connect the dots to be sure.”
High winds, possibly from the same tornado, damaged an estimated 50 homes in Maryland Heights, not far from the airport, and a 45-foot-tall steeple fell during evening Mass at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said there was a swath of damage through his community, also near the airport, consistent with a tornado. Several other St. Louis County communities reported damage to homes and numerous trees and power lines down.
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. There were no reports of injuries anywhere else.
Gov. Jay Nixon announced late Friday he had declared a state of emergency, allowing state agencies to assist communities with their emergency responses to the storm’s aftermath, including the destruction at Lambert.
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 passed.
Ashley Thompson of Kansas City was at the airport with her mother to pick up their father, who was returning from Germany. She said she heard a whooshing sound and at first thought it was the air conditioning system. Then the wind came in and pushed them against the wall.
Dianna Merrill, 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.”
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. Some 35,000 were still without power Saturday morning.
In Maryland Heights, police were dealing with hundreds of reports of downed trees that were blocking roadways. The city’s community center opened as a shelter for residents affected by the storm.
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch happened to be the baggage area of Lambert when the worst of the storm hit. He saw doors being blown off.