Tornado rips through Sunset Hills; no serious injuries reported

Staff Report

Citing less than a handful of minor injuries and no fatalities, Mayor Bill Nolan called the tornado that ripped through Sunset Hills Friday a “New Year’s Eve miracle.”

Mehlville Fire Protection District Chief Tim White agreed, saying the lack of serious injuries as a result of the devastating tornado “was nothing short of miraculous.”

Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Missouri in response to severe weather that began late Dec. 30. The weather system involved tornadoes and high winds in communities across the state, including Sunset Hills, Crestwood and Fenton.

Statewide, tornadoes touched down in 13 locations Friday, killing two people near Rolla and two people in Dent County, just south of Phelps County.

On Saturday, Nixon surveyed the tornado damage in Sunset Hills and met with local emergency responders and law enforcement officials at the Sunset Hills City Hall.

On Friday, the tornado initially touched down about 11:48 a.m. Friday in far northern Jefferson County and moved through Fenton before intensifying as it neared South Lindbergh Boulevard in Sunset Hills, according to the National Weather Service.

The category EF3 tornado with winds near 150 mph tore a path of destruction from just east of the Fox Bridge subdivision along West Watson Road through the South Lindbergh Boulevard intersection.

After the tornado hit, personnel from the Mehlville Fire Protection District and the Sunset Hills Police, Public Works and Parks departments swung into action.

“Basically, we knew that the storm was coming in, obviously with the early warning system,” MFPD Chief Tim White told the Call, noting he had chief officers strategically positioned throughout the fire district. “Indeed, once it hit … we arrived on the scene. Then it was a matter of determining what is the magnitude?

“What is the scope? Where is the perimeter? How far does this damage go? Canvassing the situation, you’re trying to assimilate all that data and then they went ahead and set up the incident command post there at O’Leary’s (Restaurant) …

“It just so happens that Court Drive, right across the street from O’Leary’s, seemed to be the epicenter along with the strip mall, which obviously had several inhabitants. So what we were faced with was a multitude of gas leaks. There was gas leaking everywhere … That was obviously a concern and then you had wires down. So it was basically what could be looked at as a minefield …,” White continued.

“Then it was what we refer to as an urban search and rescue mode and they had to then dispatch teams or groups, what we like to call them, and move them down throughout the debris field and look at these homes. Now two things obviously we’re looking at here — first and foremost is trapped victims. So they started their search and rescue mode and while they’re doing that they’re also making a determination of the structural stability of these homes …,” he said.

Assisting Mehlville were members of the Affton Fire Protection District, White said.

“… They helped with the search and rescue operations along with our personnel. They went door to door looking for victims. There were some walking wounded.

“There was a total of four injuries, one transported by ambulance, but they were all basically minor. A walking wounded situation — I’ve got a scratch. I’ve got a bump. I’ve got a hurt leg, which indeed was nothing short of miraculous,” he said.

“When you’re looking at the scope of damage, I’ve seen a lot less damage with a lot more injuries — so many times. The fact that we just had an EF3 tornado touch down in our district was stunning enough, but to then see that there was such a small scale of

human toll, human injuries, it was quite a blessing as we were exiting 2010 and entering 2011. Though it was an unfortunate situation where people lost a lot of property — homes, personal belongings — we can certainly certainly say that the blessing was there as everybody’s going into 2011 alive.”

The Mehlville chief praised the cooperation among the various departments and agencies involved.

“… It was a collaborative effort involving us, Affton, St. Louis County Police, Sunset Hills Police. You had the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, AmerenUE and Laclede Gas,” White said, adding, “What I saw was all of our training came to fruition in dividends.

You always hope that you don’t have these type of calls, but as an incident commander and as the chief of the department, you look at it and once again: Got to be ahead of the curve. Got to be prepared. The people are counting on us and it was said actually in the meeting with the governor of Missouri that Mehlville was the glue that held the whole operation together. So I was very proud of our department, needless to say. The personnel, what a job they did. I just can’t say enough about them …”

The advance warning of the storm saved lives and prevented major injuries, according to White.

“… Because they (residents) had the early warning, they were already geared to take pro-active movement toward a more defensive mode and I think that’s what made the difference,” he said, adding, “Many of the people who were involved in this all said the same thing: I didn’t have much time. I had less time than what I thought. It was a matter of steps of getting to safety and that matter of just a few steps could have obviously been a situation between severe injury and death and complete safety. And that’s exactly what happened.

“I mean it was surprising that so many people on (Court) Drive actually said: We were just making our way and my ears popped. And then the house shook and then the house was blown over. They just made it. Yeah, I think this is a lesson to us all and I’m sure that the people on Court Drive would be telling the same thing and that is: When you hear a tornado watch, which means conditions are favorable, or a tornado warning, which one has been spotted and potentially heading in your direction, then it is a good idea to take proactive movement and protect you and your family and pets.”

Sunset Hills Mayor Bill Nolan praised the support the city and its residents have received from local, county and state officials, including the Mehlville Fire Protection District, and from the Laclede Gas Co. and Ameren Missouri.

“… I’m telling you the Mehlville Fire Department and, of course, our Police Department and the other police departments that came to our help and the other fire department, it was just incredible. We had so many people running around that site, it was amazing … We had gas leaks all over that had to be fixed and so Laclede Gas had to shut off the mains into the area and Ameren had live wires everywhere. I was telling people it’s like the New Year’s Eve miracle,” he said, citing the fact that less than a handful of people suffered minor injuries.

“When you look at the devastation …, it’s hard to believe.”

Asked about the number of people displaced by the tornado, Nolan said, “At least the occupants of 20 homes — maybe more — because the power’s off and the gas is off because there’s so much damage we can’t turn them back on …”

Of the Mehlville Fire Protection District and its chief, White, Nolan said, “He did an incredible job. He and (Assistant Chief) Brian Hendricks — I’ll tell you what, they’re just super guys. I can’t say enough good things about them …”

The city’s disaster plan was followed to the letter, the mayor said.

“Everybody went where they were supposed to be and the street department and public works came in and started getting trees out of the way. Fortuitously, we had just signed a contract with Gamma Tree Experts on the chance that an ice storm or something would take down trees in the public right of way … to remove those trees,” Nolan said, noting the contract, which was competitively bid, had just been awarded at the Dec. 14 aldermanic meeting. “… A little over two weeks later, Gamma’s out there clearing West Watson. Nobody was (seriously) injured. We already had the tree service lined up. I mean it was just fortuitous all the way around.”

to view a photo gallery of the aftermath of last week’s storm.