Mo. tornadoes destroy homes, damage airport

Last Updated 1:33 p.m. ET

ST. LOUIS - The National Weather Service confirmed that the storm that damaged the main airport in St. Louis and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in the area was a tornado.

Lambert International Airport was closed for business Saturday while crews cleaned up from Friday evening's storm, which ripped off a large section of the main terminal's roof, and sent people scurrying for shelter as plate glass shattered around them. Several people were injured.

The airport was forced to close. Incoming flights were diverted to other cities.

The airport director says one American Airlines 757 jet sustained significant damage, and four other American planes had minor damage. Five or six flights had to be diverted away from St. Louis when the storm hit.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley says hundreds of homes in nine communities were damaged. Ameren says power could be out for several days.

Photos: Devastating Missouri storms

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the airport could be operating at 70 percent capacity starting Sunday but will reopen only if power is restored. An Ameren Missouri spokesman said power should be restored later Saturday.

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 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.

"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. There are windows from floor to ceiling on every end of the airport, and 50% of the windows blew out or blew in, causing some minor lacerations to passengers and people waiting in the terminals, said CBS Affiliate KMOV correspondent Maggie Crane.

There were also three planes full of people on the tarmac when the twister came through. They described turbulence that you might expect in the air but on the ground.

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.

Elsewhere on the property, trees were toppled and power lines downed, further limiting access to the airport even hours after the storm passed.

Flights into St. Louis were diverted to other locations, and it's not yet known when Lambert will reopen. Air travelers planning to get to St. Louis will have to go to Kansas City or even Chicago, and then drive. "Nothing's coming in today or tomorrow" at Lambert, said Crane.

Spokeswomen for Greyhound and Amtrak said both modes of alternate transportation stood ready to handle an increased demand from storm-affected travelers trying to make their way out of St. Louis, though it was not immediately clear how many of those people were trying to catch buses or trains.

Crews were busy with cleanup at Lambert Saturday.

While some damage may seem superficial, building engineers must get inside and make sure that the facilities are stable enough before allowing in workers and passengers.

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."

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.