ST. LOUIS – 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 confirmed Saturday it was a tornado that struck the airport.
He 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. If that was the case, the tornado sustained itself for roughly 30 miles.
"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.
The storm also brought absurdly large hail to some areas — softball-sized in Warren County, west of St. Louis. Flash flooding closed some roads, including Highway 67 near Farmington.
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.
"We're fortunate we didn't have larger (numbers) of injuries," airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said.
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.
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.
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. Some 35,000 were still without power Saturday morning.
In Maryland Heights, 16-year-old Brandon Blecher was home watching the storm out his window when he spotted the tornado coming toward the 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 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.
The winds knocked some tractor-trailers onto their side, and in one case, had one sitting on its end, pointing straight up. Interstates 70 and 270 were closed for hours Friday night because of toppled trucks and other accidents.
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.
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 communities with their emergency responses to the storm's aftermath, including the destruction at Lambert.