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Mid-Continent Airport mistakenly told passengers tornado shelter was full

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, May 20, 2013, at 1:31 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

A mistake in disaster protocol resulted in passengers being turned away from Mid-Continent Airport’s storm shelter as a tornado approached Sunday, airport officials said Monday.

The terminal basement, which is divided into separate spaces during a tornado for security reasons, could have been opened up to more passengers. Instead, passengers were informed the basement was full, said Brad Christopher, the assistant director of airports.

Between 500 and 600 passengers were trying to take cover, he said. Airport officials did not know how many passengers made it into the basement.

“Our officers did say that the basement was full up, and we made an announcement on the PA that the shelter was full,” Christopher said. “At the same time, we also called a supervisor in dispatch who told them ... to open the gate up and let everybody down there, into much more room that we have available.

“But by the time that happened, and the wheels started turning to make that happen, the warning was over.”

Christopher said the airport’s procedure is to punch in a code when a tornado warning is issued.

“All the lights open up and a gate in a hallway automatically closes and turns it into a non-secured area,” he said. “That’s always been enough, but the number of people exceeded what we have available in that situation.”

Some passengers were redirected to other safe interior areas in the terminal, Christopher said, and others declined to seek cover.

“We don’t force people at gunpoint downstairs,” he said. “There’s always been some who linger upstairs, be it a phobia, lingering on the edge or waiting for the roof to come off before they take shelter, I don’t know.”

One of the passengers turned away from the shelter, Jamil Malone, said he and his family were awaiting their flight for vacation when the tornado approached.

“It turned as dark as night, and then the intercom told us to take shelter,” Malone said. “We were walking past security, where there were a lot of people standing, when the intercom announced that the shelter was full, and we should seek out additional safe areas away from windows. There were a lot of people trying to seek shelter.”

Malone said he and his family were watching the storm approach on an airport bar television.

“As most Kansans do, we saw the storm approaching and literally jumped to the bar, grabbed our last drink and stare and watch,” he said.

The storm wasn’t visible from the airport, Malone said.

“I don’t know what I saw,” he said. “In the bar, they have the TV right next to the window, and we were watching it as the tornado approached, watching what they were pointing at.

“And it continually gets darker and darker, and then comes the hail and the rain. It felt like nighttime, it was so dark in there.”

Malone praised the work of airport security getting the passengers to shelter.

“It was what you’d expect when you have a lot of people in one place in imminent danger,” he said. “You’d expect people to get out of control, but looking back on it, my family was really quite amazed how the security got everyone to cover.”

When the new $101.5 million, two-floor Mid-Continent terminal opens in early 2015, the new building will have a 6,000-square-foot tunnel connecting to the current 30,000-square-foot basement, enough room for 5,000 people, Wise said.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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