Lambert Field Blackout in Missouri Blamed on Workers

Three generators that failed at Lambert Field following the July 19 storm, plunging sections of the Main Terminal into several hours of darkness, had not been maintained properly for more than three years, an internal investigation has found.

Airport employees falsified logs by recording monthly inspections and test runs that were never made, Airport Director Kevin Dolliole said in a letter Tuesday to Mayor Francis Slay. The generators' meters indicate the engines were rarely turned on for test runs. Staff also had not fully followed the manufacturer's maintenance procedures, Dolliole's report says.

"Pre-disciplinary hearings have been scheduled for the employees involved," Dolliole said in an interview. He declined to say how many employees were involved nor to provide further information about them.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people were at Lambert on the evening hurricane-force wind rocked the area and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of electric customers, including the airport. Three of the eight backup generators that should have provided power to the terminal complex, including the parking garages, failed.

As a result, restrooms in the Main Terminal went black. The inbound baggage system stopped, and lights went out in parts of the B and C concourses. At least 15 airport police patrolled the buildings and garages with flashlights.

No crime or problems related to the blackout were reported.

In 2000, the airport hired St. Louis consultant Ross & Baruzzini to evaluate its generators.

The study recommended that the airport replace most of its generators at a cost of $9 million. Two of the three generators that failed were on the list.

In 2001, airport officials included new generators in a capital improvement plan, which is funded by revenue from airlines and passengers. In the weeks after Sept. 11, revenue at Lambert, like other airports nationwide, plummeted from the drop in air travel. The airport authority slashed $64 million from its capital budget. The three new generators, estimated to cost $1.4 million, fell from the budget.

At the same time, projects geared toward preventing terrorism rose in priority, such as adding lanes to security checkpoints, buying bomb-sniffing canines and giving both terminals blast protection.

"Those with greater priority were done," Dolliole said.

Further cuts at the airport were made after American Airlines reduced its St. Louis flights by half in 2003.

Load testing, which simulates a full load on the generators, was among the cuts. At $3,000 to $5,000 per generator, the tests have not been done in three years.

But employees were still supposed to check the oil, water levels, belts and alarm systems of generators every month. They were supposed to turn them on to ensure they worked.

"We understand we made the decision not to replace the generators for financial reasons," Deputy Airport Director Gerard Slay said Tuesday. "We didn't load test them for financial reasons. But we believed they were being test-operated."

The last test operation was September of last year.

On July 19, when storms knocked out power about 7:15 p.m., the 11-year-old Main Terminal generator started properly and ran for about 30 minutes, Dolliole's report says. It then shut down, repeatedly trying to restart until its battery died.

The generator's water level was low. The water level alarm that should have sounded never went off.

Control boards on the two generators feeding power to the B and C concourses shorted and burned out. The airport bought the generators in the 1970s.

Personnel from the power plant, electric shop and automotive shop -- the departments charged at various times over the years with maintaining the generators -- got the generators working, and power flowing, four hours later, by 11:20 p.m., Dolliole's letter states.

Dolliole said one reason for the investigation is to ensure that generator failure never occurs again at Lambert. Steps are already being taken to change maintenance procedures.

Lambert began using outside contractors for generator maintenance after the July 19 problem.

Three contractors have checked all but two of the airport's 19 generators.

The airport is using an existing contractor to maintain the generators until a contract selection process is completed next month. That contract will include regular load testing, he said.

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