St. Louis' Lambert Airport remains closed indefinitely today after a tornado caused such terrible damage to the main terminal that one witness said, "Grown men were crying."
The storm seemed to come out of nowhere Friday night, witnesses said, and when it did it ripped part of the roof off the airport's main concourse, blew out glass windows and wreaked havoc on the runway, damaging a handful of planes.
Missouri resident Rebecca Finland, who was waiting in her car with her baby to pick up her husband, said the tornado lifted her car into the air and something hit her child as the vehicle was tossed around.
"Skies went totally black," Finland said. "The wind picked the car up."
Airport, state and city officials are now focused on getting the airport reopened as soon as possible.
"It's going to take a while before the C concourse can be functional," airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said. "A good portion of the roof is absolutely gone, every window is out of that as well as extensive damage to a number of the actual restaurants and stuff in the concourse."
She said one passenger jet was severely damaged and five or six others sustained lesser damage.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said today that already crews have made dramatic progress cleaning things up at the airport.
"I was stunned by the condition that it was in, the damage that the airport sustained, particularly the C concourse," Slay said today, when he returned to the airport after touring it shortly after the storm hit. "I'm back here this morning and I'm stunned, the condition the airport is in, it looks a whole lot better than it did last night."
They hope to restore the airport to 70 percent operating capacity by Sunday, though they cautioned that to achieve that, they need to first restore electricity to the facility.
The tornado caused widespread damage and power outages in St. Louis County. As many as 47,000 customers were without power immediately after the storm. Some 36,000 customers remained without power today, and power company officials said many could remain in the dark until Monday.
"We're looking at the circuits and trying to find out exactly how long it's going to take us to restore everybody's power," Ameren Missouri spokesman Dave Wakeman said. "Right now we think people should plan for several days, through today, tomorrow and into Monday for outages."
There were 1,000 utility workers were out this morning assessing the damage, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon planned to tour the area in the afternoon.
According to preliminary reports, approximately 50 homes were badly damaged in Maryland Heights, a community near the airport, and there were more damaged homes and downed power lines littering other nearby communities. The National Weather Service reported damage consistent with winds gusting over 135 miles per hour during the brunt of the storm.
Most of the danger at the airport resulted from shattered glass, which was sent flying when approximately half of the windows in Terminal 1 blew in as the storm hit.
One passenger at the airport, Dianna Merrill, described the scene to the Associated Press.
"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."
Despite the damage, officials said they were relieved that only five people injured at the airport needed to be transported to the emergency room, and all of them were treated and released.
"We're fortunate we didn't have large [numbers] of injuries," Hamm-Niebruegge said. "When you look at the devastation around, it really is a miracle there were no fatalities."
According to the National Weather Service, the storm was one about two dozen tornadoes that hit across five Midwest states Friday, and it is likely that there are more to come, especially in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
"We do anticipate a lot of heavy rain across the Ohio Valley, so we do anticipate a lot of river flooding," NWS lead forecaster Bob Oravec said. "There will be potential for additional severe weather over the next several days."