Storm clips TIA Airside E

Published Aug. 20, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Fierce winds from a thunderstorm ripped off chunks of an airside terminal and sent baggage carts sailing down the runway at Tampa International Airport on Saturday as startled passengers watched.

"I could see stuff flying all over the place," said Dean Athas, 50, of Port Richey, who was inside the Airside E terminal seeing his nephew off to Atlanta when the storm hit just before 3:30 p.m. "People are saying it was a tornado. And I got to admit I never heard anything like that before."

When the heavy rains cleared, witnesses looked out the tall windows of the airside to see massive concrete underpinnings of the building strewn over a 50-yard area, some still hanging from the underside of the structure. The damage occurred mainly to the area where trucks and crews service jets, below the level where passengers board.

No one was injured by the storm, and no planes were damaged, officials said. But as Airport Police Lt. Robert W. Dixon Jr. stood underneath the airside, he pointed to the area between the nearest taxiway and a runway about 300 yards away.

"The wind picked up about 10 (baggage carts) and catapulted them way out to that area," he said. "We were very lucky no one was hurt or worse."

Airport officials had no damage estimate late Saturday. The damage was centered near gates 61 to 65 in the southern wing of Airside E, which serves Northwest, TIA's fifth largest carrier, and Kiwi International. That portion of the airside remained closed Saturday night. The northern portion, which serves United, Lufthansa and Spirit, was operating normally.

Two planes were in the area at the time, a Kiwi jet at Gate 61 and a Northwest plane at Gate 62 that was being prepared for boarding. Both were towed to different airsides.

Four Northwest Airlines flights were delayed, the longest by an hour, said Airport Police Sgt. Daniel Raley said.

"The delays were no longer than would be caused by any other heavy storm," Raley said.

The airport's tower recorded wind gusts of up to 70 mph during the storm, Raley said.

The National Weather Service in Ruskin had no official reports of tornadoes Saturday. But meteorologist Charlie Paxton said wind gusts peaked at 36 knots, or 40 mph, at 3:20 p.m.

"Doppler radar showed an area of strong winds under the category of severe, but certainly gusty enough to blow some things around," Paxton said.

At one point, a piece of debris crashed down on the cab of a truck with a Caterair employee inside, Raley said. He was not hurt.

When the storm hit, some passengers in the airside couldn't see its full effects at first.

"It was a really big bang," said Anne Haas, who was heading back to Phoenix after a week's vacation. "All I thought was something got hit by lightning. We ran to the windows, but the rain against the windows was blinding because the wind was so strong. . . . But when it let up, you could see the baggage carts, and they were towing away a plane."

Chris Iannuzzie, the 10-year-old nephew whom Dean Athas was putting on a flight to Atlanta, said the storm sounded like a loud jet.

"It ended really fast, too. When the tornado left, you could still see the water on the ground going like this," he said, motioning.

Airport workers used front-end loaders and dump trucks to remove large concrete and wire panels that the wind had torn loose from the ceiling of the airside bay. Cables, wires and light fixtures swayed gently in a mild breeze after the storm.