Video: Cleanup begins in tornado-hit St. Louis

  1. Transcript of: Cleanup begins in tornado-hit St. Louis

    JENNA WOLFE, co-host: But we're going to begin with the aftermath of Saturday's tornadoes in St. Louis. The storm slammed into the city, ripping apart the airport and leaving devastation in its wake. The Weather Channel 's Mike Seidel is live in Bridgeton , Missouri , Mike , good morning.

    MIKE SEIDEL reporting: And good morning, Jenna . Before the twister hit the airport it touched down here. It was on the ground for 22 miles. This is Bridgeton and this is the worst of the damage. EF4 damage. The enhanced Fujita scale going from one to five, five being the worst. This house completely obliterated. All these homes on this street a total loss. In the foreground, a really -- another sad story, the woman had sold the house and was going to close on it tomorrow. Looking down the street, more devastation, a flipped SUV . Some of these winds could have been as high as 200 miles an hour with an EF4 . It has been a record-setting month in April, 345 tornadoes and counting. The tornado tore through Lambert Airport Friday evening sending passengers in the airport terminal scrambling for cover. Fierce winds ripped off the roof on Concourse C , blew out windows and crushed this jetway. Some passengers on an airplane had to ride out the storm parked at the gate.

    Mr. CURRAN HENNESSEY (Passenger): We were completely pelted with all kinds of wood and debris. And at this point I realized that -- I was -- I was concerned that we would have debris come in through the window in the airplane and so I ducked for cover.

    SEIDEL: The grounded plane became airborne.

    Mr. HENNESSEY: You could feel the airplane moving under you. We could see that we had been lifted. We were -- we were parked at the gate. We had been lifted from the gate and moved a good 15 to 20 feet from the gate.

    SEIDEL: Five were injured at the airport. But remarkably, the tornado caused no deaths.

    Mr. FRANCIS SLAY (Mayor, St. Louis, Missouri): It's stunning to see the damages here. And what's also stunning is that there weren't more people that were hurt.

    SEIDEL: Throughout St. Louis County , the tornado damaged 750 homes and left 47,000 without power. In Maryland Heights , just west of the airport, some homes were destroyed.

    Mr. RON HENDERSON: It seemed to me two or three or five minutes of just pure hell.

    SEIDEL: Ron Henderson emerged from his basement to find his home gone.

    Mr. HENDERSON: And I was thinking to myself, 'Well, I'm going to go upstairs and see how much damage.' Well, as I looked upstairs, there was no upstairs.

    SEIDEL: He and his neighbors gathered to check on each other and collect whatever belongings they could salvage from the mounds of debris. This was yet another tornado in a whirlwind spring of destruction, a string of more than 600 tornadoes that have killed at least 40, injured hundreds and damaged thousands of homes. In this neighborhood, believe it or not , no one was killed and no one was injured. In this home here, the second floor is gone and the residents were in the -- on the second floor of this house when the tornado hit, got out without a scratch. And good news this morning, Jenna , we just heard the first plane took off from Lambert Airport , so things are getting back to normal at least airlinewise. Back to you.

    WOLFE: All right. That is good news, Mike Seidel . Mike , thanks.

msnbc.com news services
updated 4/24/2011 10:08:01 AM ET 2011-04-24T14:08:01

Flights are departing the St. Louis airport for the first time since a tornado struck two days ago.

Departures began Sunday morning at Lambert Airport, even as cleanup continued. The C concourse remains closed, but airport and city officials hope to have the airport operating at about 70 percent capacity. However, dozens of departing flights remain canceled.

Complete repairs could take two months.

The tornado that struck the airport Friday night broke panes of glass, tossed a shuttle bus onto a roof and damaged a few planes. Nine St. Louis County communities were also hit. Gov. Jay Nixon says 750 homes in the St. Louis area are damaged.

Five people were injured at Lambert, but none seriously. There were no serious injuries or deaths from the tornado.

Flights began landing at the airport Saturday night, Lambert Airport spokesman Jeff Lea told Reuters, and with power restored, the staff looked to have 70 percent of our facilities functional" on Sunday." 

"There have been some planes that have landed," Lea said late Saturday night, adding that the airport was "expecting up to nine flights by midnight," although there could be some delays.

Video: Dramatic video shows twister at St. Louis airport (on this page)

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines Co. said one of its planes was damaged when the wind pushed a conveyor belt for loading baggage into it. Five other planes on the ground when the tornado hit were OK, spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said. Southwest — the biggest carrier at Lambert, with 85 departures per day — canceled all St. Louis flights through 4 p.m. Saturday.

American Airlines, which operates out of the heavily hit main terminal, said four of its planes were damaged, two of them significantly. American canceled 51 flights on Saturday, five dozen on Sunday and its first seven Monday morning.

Image: Tornado damage at St. Louis airport
Robert Cohen  /  EPA
Workers view damage to the roof of the main concourse at St. Louis' Lambert International Airport caused by a strong Good Friday storm.

Not pretty, but 'functioning'
At the airport windows were broken, debris scattered, and holes blown in the roof of at least one terminal building, but a thousand workers were deployed on Saturday to put things back in order, and initial projections that it could be Monday at the earliest before the airport reopened were quickly rolled back.

"We have spent the day boarding up windows and getting the roof holes buttoned up, cleaning up debris," Lea said. "And terminal one had a lot of glass blown out and we are clearing that out."

"It isn't going to be a pretty terminal but it will be a functioning terminal," Lea said.

Video: St. Louis picks up after ‘hell’ of tornado (on this page)

The domed design of the main terminal, dating to the mid-1950s, was the handiwork of Minoru Yamasaki, the Modernist architect of New York City's World Trade Center twin towers toppled in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Elsewhere in the city, debris from splintered homes covered the ground in neighborhoods around St. Louis, while topped trees and overturned cars littered lawns and driveways. From the air, one home looked like a dollhouse that had had its roof lifted off. Looking down, the dining room table and other contents could be seen, damp in lingering rain.

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Amid such damage, officials appeared awed that a tornado that roared through the area Friday night, striking the airport and several nearby suburbs, hadn't seriously injured anyone.

Cleanup swung into full gear Saturday. With the din of chain saws and pounding hammers in the background, homeowners sifted through wreckage while crews scrambled to restore power to the 26,000 customers still without it.

At the height of the storm, 47,000 were without power, according to utility Ameren Missouri.

'It just tore everything apart'
Near a highway overpass about 10 miles from downtown St. Louis, trees had been snapped like toothpicks, metal was twisted in piles, broken glass covered the ground.

Among the wrecked building's was 58-year-old chiropractor Dennis Baker's office, which lost its roof in the storm.

"The wind had whipped around inside with such force that it just tore everything apart," Baker told Reuters, mopping his brow as he took a break from clearing debris.

"We found the roof sitting in our parking lot and we just started in trying to get the important stuff out," Baker said, saying he and his wife worked from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. using the light from a small flashlight.

Story: Easter spirit endures in tornado-wrecked churches

"We saved the computers and got some tarp up," he said.

Other people swarmed around the wreckage, perhaps two dozen neighbors and relatives chipping in to help save Baker's small business, about one mile from Lambert Airport.

Red Cross readiness and response director Mary Anderson said that while hundreds of people have been displaced: "These are larger houses and I imagine these are families who have somewhere to go, friends, relatives, hotels."

Over the years storms and tornadoes have claimed hundreds of lives in the St. Louis region, one of the most active urban areas for tornadoes in the United States.

The worst tornado in St. Louis history killed 137 people and left 550 injured in 1927 and was the second costliest in U.S. history, according to the St. Louis Public Library.

During a storm in 1973, an Ozark Airlines flight crashed into the University of Missouri-St. Louis while trying to land at Lambert Airport during a severe storm, killing 38 people.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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