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St. Louis airport may reopen Sunday after tornado; cities damaged

By Phil Gast, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Twister was at least an EF3, according to National Weather Service
  • Airport expected to reopen by Sunday
  • Weather Service confirms tornado struck airport
  • 36,000 homes are without power

(CNN) -- Workers at the St. Louis airport, ravaged by a powerful tornado that smashed windows and rocked airplanes parked at gates, scrambled to have it ready to resume flight operations Sunday, officials said.

The tornado was part of a storm that slashed through metropolitan St. Louis Friday evening, damaging hundreds of homes and closing the airport.

When the tornado hit Bridgeton it had an EF3 rating, indicating it had winds of 136 to 165 miles per hour and is considered severe, according to the National Weather Service. The reading at the airport, which is near Bridgeton, may be different.

Mayor Francis G. Slay said if power to the airport is restored by later Saturday, as expected, about 70% of flights can be operating Sunday. No operations were scheduled for Saturday, and officials advised passengers to contact their airlines with service questions.

Major damage was evident in nearby communities, including Bridgeton, just west of the airport, but, remarkably, there was no immediate word of deaths or serious injuries.

"Hundreds of houses were impacted. There was devastation across St. Louis County," County Executive Charlie A. Dooley told reporters. "It was horrific. The fact that no one lost their life is simply a blessing."

"The path is an absolutely straight line," Garry Earls, chief operating officer for St. Louis County, said of the storm.

The swath stretched from Maryland Heights, Missouri, through Bridgeton, the airport, Berkeley and to the Mississippi River, Earls told CNN.

Members of Ferguson Christian Church in Ferguson, east of the airport, were watching the movie "The Passion of the Christ" on Good Friday when the pastor got a warning call, member Nancy Doggett told CNN.

The estimated 30 to 35 people in the building scrambled to the basement, she said.

"We felt this vacuum, and then there was so much noise," Doggett said.

They came up later to see the ceiling smashed in the sanctuary. "The roof is all over the neighborhood," she said.

No one was injured.

The National Weather Service is conducting a survey of other possible tornadoes, forecaster Scott Truett told CNN. The region was receiving more rainfall Saturday.

A tornado warning for the airport was issued at 7:36 p.m. Friday, about 35 minutes before the twister struck.

Truett said "one parent thunderstorm" formed near Jefferson City, Missouri, Friday and moved east toward St. Louis. The tornado that struck the airport may first have touched down in New Melle, about 30 miles to the west.

About 30,000 homes in the county remained without power and five shelters had been established. Major highways were open, but officials advised people to stay away from damaged neighborhoods.

Searchers were going door to door in several communities.

"We're looking for the family that may be missing," Earls told CNN.

Inspections of buildings will take several days and hauling off debris will take longer.

"We are doing a second door-to-door search right now," said Bridgeton Police Chief Don Hood. So far, everyone has been accounted for and there were no reported injuries, he said.

Many homes in the town were heavily damaged. Most of the city lost power and some roads were not passable, Hood told CNN.

Airport officials were relieved that the severe storm Friday evening injured relatively few passengers.

Five people were taken to hospitals for minor injuries and about a dozen others were treated at the airport for cuts and scrapes after the storm struck around 8:15 p.m. Friday, said airport spokesman Jeff Lea.

"It's amazing given the number of people and the amount of damage," he said.

Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said one terminal was in good shape and the other also will be able to provide service Sunday. A few hundred passengers were stranded, but most stayed at hotels, she said.

Concourse C in the main terminal, however, will take some time to repair and carriers will have to use other locations in the airport, she said.

Concourse C is used by American Airlines, Frontier, AirTran and Cape Air.

Three airlines tried to accommodate frustrated travelers on Saturday by busing them from Kansas City, Missouri, to St. Louis.

Hamm-Niebruegge said an American Airlines 757 jet suffered significant damage and four other American aircraft on the ground had minor damage.

A van was left hanging precariously off the edge of a terminal parking garage. A video posted on YouTube showed strong winds pushing a Southwest Airlines plane away from a walkway and passengers moving quickly away from tall windows, dark clouds moving in.

Passengers were hit with flying glass and debris as winds ripped off part of the roof in the airport's C concourse, CNN affiliate KSDK said.

"All the windows were busted. ...The airport looks like a war zone," Elizabeth Rastberger, 32, told CNN's iReport.

Rastberger said she had been waiting to pick up a friend when the storm hit. After an officer yelled "get downstairs," she took cover in a women's restroom with about 20 others.

"Kids were crying," she said. "A woman had a busted nose. Everyone was too freaked out to talk."

One witness described a chaotic scene outside the terminal as officials evacuated passengers from at least one aircraft.

"The plane was rocking back and forth," said Brett Knewitz of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was on a plane that was about to take off from the airport when the storm hit.

Initially, officials did not allow evacuated passengers into the airport, he said, because of concerns that the building's roof would collapse. Once he was allowed inside, Knewitz said he saw an injured gate agent.

"She was bleeding like crazy," he said.

About 50 percent of the windows were blown out in the airport's main terminal, Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Missouri's governor declared a state of emergency Friday night in response to the severe weather. In a statement, his office said tornadoes and high winds "caused significant damages to communities and facilities" across the state.

Federal weather officials referred to the storm as a "tornadic supercell."

"The National Weather Service will be surveying the tornado damage over the weekend to determine the number and intensity of tornadoes that occurred," its St. Louis office said.

CNN's Marlena Baldacci, Taylor Ward and Greg Morrison contributed to this report.