Tornado Lifted Chicago-Bound Plane Sitting at Gate: Passengers

By BJ Lutz
|  Saturday, Apr 23, 2011  |  Updated 4:53 PM CDT
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Jeff Roberson, AP

Crews inspect damage to the roof of Concourse C at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Saturday.

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A plane that was moments away from beginning its journey to Chicago was hit by flying debris and lifted off the ground as a tornado passed through Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Friday night, passengers said.

Chicagoan Jackie Hamm and four of her friends were heading back home after vacationing in Miami.  Already delayed by weather, Hamm said she was happy to finally board American flight 699 for O'Hare.

"We passed the pilot on his way out, and he said, 'Well, I hope you guys brought a couple of books because it's going to be a while.'  And we were like, 'Oh, that's so frustrating that they put us on the plane and now we have to wait on this plane,' but we're so grateful that we did because probably 15 minutes after we got on the plane our terminal was pretty much destroyed by the tornado."

Hamm, a freshman English teacher at Urban Prep Academy, said she's looking forward to getting back to the classroom on Monday and sharing her story with her students.

Another passenger on flight 699, Curran Hennessey, was seated several rows behind Hamm.  He
recounted the ordeal Saturday morning on NBC's Today program:

"All of a sudden the rain started to pick up, there was severe wind gusting, sheets of rain everywhere, and there was evident -- the swirling of the rain and all of a sudden the airplane began to sway significantly, and this was kind of unsettling with 100 ton 757 swaying back and forth in the wind... When the tornado came through there was all this debris that was inundating the side of the airplane, completely pelting us...  You could feel a change of pressure in your ears.  I mean, you would almost equate it as something you would expect to feel if you were ascending from zero to to 32,000 feet really quickly -- not something you're accustomed to feeling on the ground."

Hennessey said he was sitting in a window seat near the back of the plane.  He ducked away from the window, fearing that debris would break through.

Then he felt the plane move.

"For a moment you could feel the airplane moving under you and it ultimately became clear that we had moved pretty significantly because when we were evacuated from the airplane we could see that we had been lifted -- we were parked at the gate -- we had been lifted from the gate and moved a good 15 to 20 feet from the gate during this episode," he told NBC's Amy Robach during a televised interview.

After the twister passed through, Hamm said everyone remained on the plane for about an hour before being bussed to a less-damaged portion of the terminal.  The ground was littered with debris, including luggage.

"It was very scary," she said.

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