Water leak floods JFK Airport baggage claim, forces evacuation

A water main break flooded a baggage claim area at JFK International Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, compoun...

Posted: Jan 8, 2018 8:55 AM
Updated: Jan 8, 2018 8:55 AM

A water main break flooded a baggage claim area at JFK International Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, compounding flight cancellations and other headaches caused by the cold wave.

Water flowed into Terminal 4, soaking stranded travelers' luggage and forcing a partial evacuation of the terminal, the major arrival point for international travelers. Incoming flights to Terminal 4 were shut down for several hours.

A pipe feeding the terminal's sprinkler system broke around 2 p.m. ET, sending water into the arrivals and customs inspection areas of the terminal, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said at a news conference. Power was cut off as a safety precaution. He said the arrivals area and customs office should reopen within several hours.

"What happened at JFK Airport is unacceptable, and travelers expect and deserve better," Cotton said, promising an investigation into the flooding. He noted that delays could last for days.

'It's very hectic'

The airport was already jammed with frustrated travelers whose flights were delayed or canceled by the bitter cold that has gripped the East Coast for days.

Passengers reported spending hours sitting on the tarmac before deplaning, then spending hours and sometimes days inside the terminal waiting for flights. Luggage covered large sections of the airport floor.

"It's very hectic," said Andrew Westrem, 28, who traveled home to New York from Los Angeles. "I see other people upset but there's not much you can do. You're at the mercy of weather."

He has a flight to Europe on Monday and hoped to be reunited with his bags before that.

Reygie Papasin, 32, arrived from the Philippines and is scheduled to fly to Miami on Monday. When asked what he plans to do, Papasin said, "I just hope I can get my luggage." This is his first time in the United States.

Cause of leak unknown

The temperature was around 15 degrees when the flooding started. Video showed standing water in a large section of the terminal and water cascading down a wall in an arrival area.

Power was turned off in parts of Terminal 4. Conveyer belts stopped working on some luggage carousels and travelers were instructed to pick up their bags in another part of the terminal. The arrival area was cordoned off while employees swept water off the floor.

The New York City Fire Department responded, but no cause of the leak has been provided. No injuries were reported.

Cotton said water also reached a road outside the terminal, which was closed because of icing.

Around 3:30 p.m., the airport announced via Twitter that international flights into Terminal 4 had been shut down. Departures were not affected. Around 7:45 p.m., the airport tweeted that incoming flights would be allowed again, but "residual delays" were expected. JFK advised passengers to check with their airline prior to arriving at the airport.

Terminal 4 is "the major gateway for international arrivals at JFK airport. It serves as a major international hub for Delta Airlines," the airport website says.

Around 8 p.m. ET Sunday, 55 flights out of JFK had been canceled and about 200 delayed, according to Flight Aware, a flight tracking website. On Saturday alone, 94 flights were canceled at JFK, the New York Port Authority said.

'Serious breakdown'

Cotton said a series of problems had beset JFK in recent days.

The winter storm was so strong on Thursday that the airport had to close. Operations went smoothly on Friday, he said, but on Saturday, "bluntly, a serious breakdown" occurred because the terminal operators and the airlines didn't coordinate to ensure enough gates were available for incoming and outgoing aircraft.

"The airlines and terminal operators could not move aircraft out to the gates at the normal rate they predicted," Cotton said. Passengers reported sitting on the tarmac for hours before they could deplane or the planes took off.

Frigid weather caused equipment failures on the ground and in the aircraft, he said. Baggage claims became backed up, planes were filled to capacity because of earlier delays and employees didn't show up for work because of the weather, he said.

He said officials would determine who was responsible for the problems. Weather apparently caused the water main break, he said, but the investigation will seek to determine why it was not weather protected.

US Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said JFK officials should have foreseen some of the problems.

"Look, when it's as cold as it was we'll cut the airport a little slack," he said. "But what happened at JFK was way beyond cutting a little slack, it seemed almost everything broke down, it seemed like a disaster. Whether it's the runways not being plowed, whether it's the baggage machines that transport the baggage freezing, whether it's not notifying people what's going on. ...

"They should've been much, much better prepared plain and simple. JFK has to follow the Boy Scout's model: 'Be prepared.' They weren't."

'There's no space'

Travelers had complained about delays and baggage problems even before the water leak occurred.

Emillio Mesa traveled from Los Angeles to New York City and said he was frustrated at not seeing his luggage for 13 hours.

"The luggage pile just keeps growing," he said. "It's a fire hazard now. New flights are coming in and there's no space!" he posted on Instagram.

The New York Port Authority issued statements via Twitter Sunday afternoon saying the FAA has shut down international arrivals at Terminal 4 but that international departures remain unaffected.

The authority said "all runways and taxiways are fully operational. Airlines remain in recovery mode, rebooking passengers from canceled flights and reuniting passengers with their luggage. Frigid temperatures continue to cause equipment failures and slower than normal operations."

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A cold front has moved over northern California on this day before Thanksgiving, and it brought light rain and snow showers to the higher terrain, gusty wind and cooler air for all. Thanksgiving will still be breezy, but also mild and pleasant.
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