An Air Force Emergency Management trailer owned by the 131st Bomb Wing rests against a tree after a Category EF2 tornado swept through the Lambert-St. Louis area April 22. While there was widespread damage to the South side of the facility, there were no injuries at the Air National Guard base. (Photo by Master Sgt Mary-Dale Amison)
By Bill Phelan
ST. LOUIS, Mo. - The tornado that struck north St. Louis County Friday night dealt a serious blow to the Missouri Air National Guard facility at Lambert Airport.
Air National Guard officials are now conducting damage assessment at the Lambert facility, which is home to the 131st Mission Support Group and several tenant units.
"The 131st Bomb Wing has activated the emergency operations center and is running 24 hours," said Col. Gregory Champagne, commanding officer of the 131st. "We have 16 building on the south side of the base that were damaged and we are moving offices and equipment to non-damaged structures and the 231st Civil Engineer Flight is conducting building surveys."
Sgt. Bryan Donnelly, of Florissant, an Air Force veteran and Missouri Department of Public Safety officer, was working security at the base when the tornado struck Friday.
"The first round of tornado sirens started at about 7:30," Donnelly said. "We had been monitoring the weather on the computer, and when they started talking about tennis ball-sized hail that peaked our interest."
Donnelly said it was about 8 p.m. when the storm hit harder.
"At that time our power flickered and then went out completely, the doors and windows started flexing and rain started coming in horizontally," he said. "We ordered our sentry at the south gate into the tunnel that goes underneath Lambert International Boulevard because we were very concerned about his safety. Right about that time the wind knocked over our flammables locker with all of our diesel fuel and paint and other materials. Through the bolts of lightning we could see debris flying through the air."
Master Sgt. Mary-Dale Amison, an Air Guard photographer, arrived at the base shortly after the tornado had passed.
"Driving into the area there was debris strewn all over the roads and there was a lot of chaos," Amison said. "While the north side of the base was hardly touched, the south side is severely damaged. As tornadoes go, it seemed like the storm picked out some buildings and left others untouched in the middle of the damage. We've got cars that were thrown around the parking lot and other that are still parked in their spaces."
Amison said the force of the storm was evident everywhere.
"We have (airport) luggage carts lying around here and we don't normally have those here," she said. "The antenna array on top of Building 225 is bent over like someone took it and just bent it in half. There's siding off of buildings, the roof of our supply building was just peeled off and what used be our ambulance bay has collapsed. It's just overwhelming."
After seeing the damage, Donnelly marveled at how quickly Mother Nature did her work.
"From the time we stared seeing flying debris to the time we ventured out to see if everyone was ok, it couldn't have been more than 30 seconds," Donnelly said. "It was that quick."
Fortunately no one on the base was injured.
"That was mindboggling," Donnelly said. "It was almost unbelievable, especially when we saw the damage on the south side of the base. The damage is significant, extensive and devastating."
Air National Guard officials are conducting damage assessment at the Lambert facility, which could take some time.
Meanwhile, Donnelly said the storm is not an event he hopes to relive.
"When I was on active duty in the Azores I experienced a hurricane and an earthquake and now I've got my tornado," he said flatly. "It's not something I want to repeat."
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