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Port Authority Investigates Water Pipe Break, Other Debacles At JFK Airport

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has launched an investigation into a water pipe break inside a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport that added to the delays at the airport still coping from the aftermath of last week's snowstorm.

As CBS2's John Dias reported, JFK has been playing catch-up since the snowstorm this past Thursday forced the airport to close temporarily, creating a backlog of flights and stranded passengers.

The Port Authority said the extreme cold on Saturday compounded the problem by freezing equipment and creating staff shortages, as CBS2's Hazel Sanchez reported. And then on Sunday, the water pipe burst and flooded Terminal 4.

"What occurred this weekend is completely and totally unacceptable," Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said at a news conference Monday afternoon. "The Port Authority is totally committed to investigate and review from the start of the storm through the frigid weather, through the inability of the international flights to be taken timely into gates, all the way through today."

Cotton said the underlying problem was a lack of communication and coordination between the private terminal operators that provide gates where planes land, and the international airlines. As a result, gates were not available for inbound international planes on a timely basis, he said.

"We will ensure that the failure that occurred over this weekend will not occur in the future," he said.

When it comes to the Port Authority's own role in the crisis, Cotton said he could not "prejudge" the investigation before it is completed. He did say that the Port Authority "departed from past practice" over the weekend, and requested assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration in limiting inbound international flights in the midday hours and in the late afternoon Saturday.

As to the water pipe that burst, it feeds a sprinkler system in the privately operated terminal. It broke at about 2 p.m. Sunday, significantly disrupting operations.

"While the water pipe break that occurred appears to be weather-related, we have launched an investigation into the incident to determine exactly what occurred and why an internal pipe was not weather protected and whether any other failures contributed to this disruption," Cotton said earlier.

The pipe break sent about three inches of water gushing onto the floor of the terminal. Video shows streams cascading from a ceiling and people slogging through pools of water.

Power to the affected areas was temporarily shut off for safety reasons and additional staffing and busing operations were deployed to assist travelers, the Port Authority said.

But many travelers had lost their patience well before the flooding incident happened. Beginning just after the storm Thursday, passengers were kept on planes and waited hours to retrieve luggage as flights were delayed and canceled and a backup to get to terminal gates built up.

Ben Ferreira had been at the airport stuck since Saturday at 6 p.m.

"Our flight has been canceled four times already," he said.

JFK was just supposed to be a quick layover for Ferreira while he was traveling to Brazil. But he ended up stranded for days.

"We sleep here on the floor," he said. "They never gave us anything. No money, no hotel."

Ferreira and many others had grown sick and tired of feeling trapped inside the airport after the Thursday snowstorm canceled thousands of flights.

"I'm upset. I'm mad. I'm tired," said Matthias Jeker. "The only thing I want is to go home."

As CBS2's Jessica Layton reported, tempers at Terminal 4 were still reaching their limit Monday night, with people screaming and cursing. Musav Zeiton was particularly angry.

"It's a third-world mess and I don't know what happened," he said.

On Monday night, Zeiton had been waiting for his family's luggage at JFK since Friday and had passed the point of frustration to exhaustion.

"Half of my stuff is not even there and someone's gone to look for it, wherever the hell it is," he said.

Maria Pena was waiting at Terminal 4 for her family who arrived on a flight from Bogota, Colombia at 4:30 a.m. Monday morning. As of 8 a.m., the plane was still sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate.

"They're in the airplane, they told them that they have to wait 45 minutes and it's been all this time already," Pena said. "They're tired."

Ricky Manohar came to the airport Sunday night all the way from Schenectady to pick up his brother from Guyana. By Monday morning he had been there for 16 hours.

"Sleeping the car, in and out, come get coffee, go back in the car cause it's so cold," Manohar said.

In the days following the storm, extreme cold caused equipment breakdowns compounded with staff shortages and baggage claim problems.

Hundreds of checked bags ended up lying in an unorganized pile.

"We got stuck at the runway for like an hour because they couldn't find a gate, and then we waited for three hours to get our luggage," said traveler Ankit Kharod.

Others had to come back to the airport Monday to search through the maze of belongings.

"And it was by luck -- go find them," a passenger said. "There wasn't even aisles in between the bags."

On Monday, after returning to the airport and sorting through a maze of luggage Katherine Huntington finally collected her family's eight bags. They had landed at the airport on Sunday from Zurich.

"I looked through hundreds of bags and they weren't there and then I finally found out that they were in another section so I finally found them," she said.

Even though he urged patience whenever temperatures plummet, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) said the debacle at Kennedy Airport went well beyond the normal weather hassles.

"When it's as cold as it was, you cut the airport a little slack. But this was more than a little slack. It seemed like almost everything broke down," he said Sunday. "It seemed like a disaster."

Late Monday, Cotton said recovery efforts remained under way. He said the Port Authority has been in close contact with the private operators of terminals 1 and 4, which handle much of the international airline traffic at JFK.

The airline is also working to return baggage to passengers, Cotton said. He said domestic carriers plan to return baggage by the end of the day, while international carriers plan to have baggage back to passengers by Tuesday morning.

Cotton added that the rebooking process is well under way, though the customer service and booking process on some specific airlines – Emirates, Etihad, and Air India – was "far below standard."

As to flights on Monday, many seemed to be leaving on time.

At the news conference, Port Authority Director of Aviation Huntley Lawrence said most flights were indeed on or close to schedule Monday. He said there had been 116 cancellations and 98 delays out of about 600 flights for the day.

But Lawrence noted that the weather forecast calls for snow, sleet and freezing rain for New York City for Monday evening, and terminal operators have been asked to monitor operations closely.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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