DIA Evacuates Main Terminal For Fear Of Roof Collapse

Passengers Stranded By Snowstorm Get More Frustrated

The more than 4,000 passengers who were stranded at Denver International Airport because of the severe snowstorm faced another crisis on Wednesday -- a possible roof collapse.

The airport evacuated the main terminal at 7 a.m. as a precaution after it identified a rip in a seam on the fabric canopy that covers the terminal. DIA reopened the "Great Hall" around 4 p.m. after a representative from the tent's maker, Bird Aire, inspected the damaged area and determined that the tear was not a potential safety hazard.

A team from Bird Aire, which is headquartered in New York, is expected to be at the airport on Thursday to look at the damage more thoroughly and investigate why the seam tore.

Throughout the day, airport officials kept a close watch on the roof even though it wasn't leaking. The ribs of the roof sagged under the immense weight of the heavy snow, 7NEWS reported.

The airport's signature white tent -- which covers the fountain, the screening areas and numerous airport concessions -- is made of Teflon-covered fiberglass that, once stretched, tends to break under stress, DIA airport officials said.

During the evacuation, passengers who spent the night sleeping on the hard marble floors of the airport or on airport-issued cots and blankets were corralled to the sides of the airport, the ticketing areas and the concourses.

Most of the passengers were funneled to Concourse B, the only place where food was available since most of the concession stands had run out of food Wednesday morning, 7NEWS reported.

Adding To Travelers' Frustration

The evacuation and the news that the roof could collapse just added to the frustration and anxiety felt by thousands of travelers.

When the brunt of the storm rolled into the area Tuesday afternoon causing blizzardlike conditions, the airlines canceled all of their flights, leaving some passengers sitting on their planes for hours.

Alan McKennan, a passenger on United's Flight 1557 to Phoenix, said his plane sat on the tarmac for from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. waiting for an open gate.

"We've just been sitting on the aircraft just enjoying each other's breath, I guess," McKennan said. "It's been very frustrating. Unfortunately, there was nothing that United could do about the nasty weather, but the fact that they left their valuable customers sitting on the planes for seven hours is obviously disappointing."

McKennan had only a carry-on but for others who had checked in their luggage, it took them hours to be reunited with their belongings because there were not enough crews to get the luggage off the planes.

The airport's 1,000 blankets and 850 cots were quickly distributed to those who were camping out. Food in the main terminal's concession stands also started to run out Wednesday morning. Motels and hotels near the airport -- all of them booked -- also reported a shortage of food, 7NEWS reported.

The main problem with getting food was access. Most of the roads were shut down and nearby grocery shops were closed.

On Tuesday night, the airport shuttled a busload of stranded passengers to the Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown Denver. DIA also sent a convoy of seven shuttle buses led by a snowplow barreling through several feet of snow to the downtown hotels Wednesday afternoon.

The airport, which "officially" closed at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, will remain closed indefinitely. No flights departed or arrived at DIA on Wednesday.

United has canceled all of its DIA flights until noon Thursday.

However, United Airlines said that DIA may open one runway at midnight to relieve the congestion at the airport. If that happens, United will deploy some of the 74 planes it has waiting at DIA. However, because the FAA requires a certain number of crew members to fly with passengers, these planes will be empty.

News of these empty "ferry flights" upset stranded passengers.

Chris Brathwaite, a United spokesman, told 7NEWS that United is not in the business of flying empty planes, but that is an FAA requirement. He said ferry flights allow airlines to reposition their planes where they need to be for the following day.

Some customer service agents told passengers that it could take two more days before they can go home because that is how long it would take to get all the planes and people sorted in the right place.

"We continue to contact customers proactively to reaccommodate them," said Larry De Shon, senior vice president of United's airport operations. "Departures and arrivals will be canceled until tomorrow and we are asking passengers not to go to the airport since the road is difficult to drive on."

The best thing to do if you are checking on a flight for Thursday is to call the airline.

The airport was "officially" closed when snow accumulated so fast that runway lights were buried.

"The lights, which number in the hundreds, must be individually cleared by a snow blower, which is time and labor intensive. Crews could not recover before new snow fell. Additionally, the instrument landing system (ILS) became completely covered with snow, disrupting radio signals to arriving aircraft," the airport said.

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