Whirlwind of destruction

By Catherine Wang

Before this past weekend, Melissa Gertler ’11 had never traveled alone. Before her trip, she worried about the routine airplane travel procedures: checking in for her flight, getting on her airplane, and arranging transportation to and from the airport. She didn’t worry about protecting herself from a tornado that would rip through her airport terminal and flatten 2,700 buildings on its 22-mile path along the ground.

After visiting Washington University in St. Louis during “Spring Preview,” Gertler could not wait to go back to Los Angeles Friday night. She waited at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport’s Concourse C to board her airplane. Shortly before her scheduled boarding time, airline officials announced that her plane would be delayed an hour because it had to stop for fuel.

“All of a sudden I heard something,” she said. “I look behind me and there’s this giant cloud of dust and debris barreling toward me.”

She didn’t know that the “giant cloud” was a tornado, let alone what has been called the most powerful tornado in the last 44 years.

Through the concourse window, Gertler could see the tornado “destroying all this stuff,” she said. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado was moving between 111 and 165 miles per hour when it hit the airport.

Gertler hid behind a metal desk at the front of the gate.

“I did the whole earthquake thing and covered my head,” she said. “That was not a very smart place to be — it was basically underneath a huge wall of glass and steel.”

An airport employee came over and told Gertler to move away from the glass, which was shattering around her.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “Everything was falling down and glass was everywhere. There was not very much direction.”

The ceiling collapsed, and rain was falling into the airport, Gertler said.

After the tornado stopped, a security guard led those in Concourse C to the baggage claim area, where she called her parents.

“Someone had said it was a tornado, so by then I had gotten it,” she said. “We stayed there until the coast was clear.”

Gertler had met another girl traveling alone who had also visited Wash. U. from Los Angeles.

“She comforted me when I was hysterical,” she said.

They both booked early flights for the following morning, and decided to share a room at a nearby hotel after they were kicked out of the airport for safety reasons. The next morning, their flight was cancelled and they were given spots on a noon flight, which was also cancelled.

“At that point, we realized the airport would be closed for a very long time,” she said.

The nearest airport was in Kansas City, Missouri, a three and a half hour bus drive away. Gertler booked an evening flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles.

“Every time I moved from one city to another, I kept thinking of everything that could go wrong,” she said.

When she landed at Los Angeles, she was “exhausted and relieved,” she said. “I was in the best mood of my life.”

During the tornado, Gertler was terrified, she said.

“Afterwards, I got impatient and frustrated but I just focused on getting done what needed to get done. Throughout the process, I was too busy to think about it,” she said. “It was a learning experience. I also gained a greater appreciation for my normal everyday life.”

Although Gertler liked Wash. U., she was leaning away from it before the tornado hit the airport. “But the whole experience made it not an option,” she said. “St. Louis never again.”

While those waiting in the airport had no warning of the tornado, most of St. Louis had a 30 minute warning.

“I feel so incredibly lucky,” she said. “I could have been so hurt because I was not in the safest place.”

When the tornado hit the St. Louis airport, Danielle Strom ’11 and Lizzy Pratt ’11 were watching the St. Louis Cardinals play the Cincinnati Reds in Busch Stadium.

“We were so excited for the game, since there was supposed to be no rain and it was supposed to finally clear out,” Pratt said.

Rain started pouring on the field after only six pitches, and players ran off the field, she said.

Ten minutes later the tornado sirens went off.

“I had never heard tornado sirens before,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were.”

Strom and Pratt were not as shaken as Gertler.

“We weren’t too affected since we were in the city. There was a lot of thunder, lightning, rain and wind,” Strom said. “But it wasn’t scary. People who are from St. Louis are used to it so it’s not a big deal. We just had to go inside the stadium to get sheltered.”

After the game had stopped, Strom and Pratt heard on the radio that the game was back on. They drove back to the stadium and watched the game from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

They first learned that a tornado had struck St. Louis, that night.

The airport was shut down Saturday, so Strom’s family decided to rent a car and make the 10-hour drive to Ann Arbor. Pratt and her dad stayed in St. Louis for an additional night and made the five and a half hour drive to Chicago Sunday at 5 a.m. and flew to Los Angeles from there.

“It was an experience,” Pratt said of her weekend. “It’s probably something I should get used to if I’m going to school in the Midwest.”