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Water Main Break At JFK Compounds Chaos As Airport Struggles To Recover From Winter Blast

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- An afternoon water main break suspended inbound international flights, and exacerbated an already chaotic situation at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sunday.

On top of it, the power had to be turned off -- cutting lights and heat to same part of the airport affected by the main break late in the afternoon.

As CBS2's Ali Bauman reported, passenger patience wore increasingly thin as long delays and compounding cancellations continued several days after a major winter storm battered the Tri-State Area.

Making matters worse, the FDNY and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responded to reports of a water main break in Terminal 4 just after 1:30 p.m. No injuries were reported as authorities worked to isolate the broken main.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said the main break left three inches of water in the west end of Terminal 4 at JFK, and maintenance crews were sent in to mop and clean up.

PHOTOS: Water Main Break Floods Terminal At JFK

The inner roadway at the arrivals area was closed due to excess water, but the outer roadway remained open.

"Cascaded out onto the frontage and into the inner roadway. With the freezing temperatures, that meant that ice formed. Extremely dangerous," said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton.

International flights to Terminal 4 were suspended. Passengers who had already arrived were deplaned and taken to other terminals for processing, the Port Authority said.

Restrooms were also closed, a livery driver told 1010 WINS' Roger Stern. The restrooms were later reopened, but the chaos continued.

"People see children crying; let us go," the driver said.

The problems compounded even more as the afternoon went on. The Port Authority said electricity was immediately turned off for safety, and thus, power and heat were out in about 80 percent of the west end of Terminal 4.

Terminal 4 had finally reopened by 8 p.m. and flights had resumed with delays. But in all on Sunday, there were 352 delays and 46 cancellations at JFK.

Overnight, strangers huddled for warmth as fellow travellers were confused, frustrated, or downright outraged after spending yet another night at the airport.

"I'm so angry words can't even express how I feel right now," Bill Carver from Austin, Texas said.

READLack Of Available Gates Leads To Major Delays At JFK Airport

Tensions ran high as thousands shared horror stories. One group managed to forage cardboard and build ramshackle "neighborhoods." Others were stuck on dark planes on the tarmac for upwards of a day, waiting to deplane or even take off.

"I was on the plane for a good 20 hours," frustrated traveller Michelle Lopez said told CBS2's Reena Roy. "They took us out once to eat, then we went back to the plane."

Dimitri Grigoryev said he had been stuck at the airport for three days.

"This is the third day, starting now," he said. "There are 300 passengers there and I should say they're becoming restless."

The Port Authority said the snowstorm and extreme cold created a cascading series of problems, including frozen equipment, issues with baggage claim, and staff shortages.

The Port Authority also said there weren't enough gates to handle the backlog of rescheduled flights since Thursday's snowstorm forced countless cancellations.

"In terms of why did the cascading failures occur, they occurred because the airlines and the terminal operators could not move aircraft out of gates at the normal rate that they had predicted," Cotton said.

Additional staff were called in Saturday night to help, after 94 additional flights were scrapped.

Baggage was another issue entirely.

"We got to this airport at four in the morning," passenger Rachel Greene said. "We've been waiting for our luggage since then. They say it's coming, but it's not coming."

"We got here we had to stay on the runway for an hour and a half and we still can't get our luggage. They said come back tomorrow," said Lisa Brown. "It's ridiculous. I just want to go home."

"When we first got here, they told us it could be hours if not days before we got her luggage, so I'm hoping that's not the case," said Kim Halsey.

"They're not telling us where are bags are; when we're getting them. They're not telling us anything," said Felipe Encarnacion.

On Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to limit some flights into the airport including all incoming into Terminal 1. Greene says she's never seen anything like it.

"It makes me not want to fly anywhere and definitely not out of JFK," she said.

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

"It seemed like almost everything broke down, it seemed like a disaster," Schumer said on Sunday. "Whether it's the runways not being plowed, whether it's the baggage machines that transport the baggage freezing, whether it's not notifying people what's going on."

Schumer said he wants the Port Authority to review what exactly went wrong. The Port Authority said normal coordination broke down.

"Saturday was, bluntly, was a serious breakdown," Cotton said. "The expected coordination between terminal operators and airlines to assure that gates are available on a timely basis to receive arriving aircraft - that coordination obviously did not take place."

CBS2 asked the Port Authority why JFK had so many more issues with the snowstorm than LaGuardia Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport. No response had been received early Sunday evening.

The Port Authority late Sunday was investigating what caused the water pipe to burst.

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