Philadelphia firefighters are being trained for the first time to battle fires aboard cargo aircraft after their experience with a February blaze aboard a United Parcel Service plane as it landed at Philadelphia International Airport, officials said at a federal hearing yesterday.
Philadelphia Fire Capt. Gary Loesch, the shift commander on duty at the airport when the UPS DC-8 landed in the early hours of Feb. 8, said all of the training firefighters had received previously was for dealing with passenger-plane fires.
Loesch testified in Washington at the first public hearing held by the National Transportation Safety Board into the cause of the fire, which destroyed the airplane. The federal agency also is looking into the causes of other cargo-aircraft fires.
The fire took about four hours to control after the plane landed with smoke and flames shooting out of it. The crew members, who were not identified, were treated for smoke inhalation.
Firefighters' response was also slowed because they lacked information about the UPS plane's contents or a diagram of the plane, Loesch said.
The firefighters didn't know what hazardous materials were aboard until they found a list on the plane's floor about 45 minutes after the landing, Loesch said. UPS provided diagrams and other information after the accident, he said.
Frank Hildrup, the NTSB investigator in charge of the board's probe, testified that the fire threw off such dense smoke that the three crew members in the cockpit couldn't see their hands in front of their faces. The crew smelled smoke 10 minutes before landing but couldn't inspect the tightly packed cargo hold, nor could they find hazardous-materials information to aid firefighters on the runway, Hildrup said.
"Smoke began streaming into the cockpit just before landing," Hildrup said. "The crew leaned out the window for fresh air, but inhaled smoke instead."
The board is investigating whether the UPS fire involved lithium ion batteries, which are used in personal computers and can ignite when heated.
In 1999, the safety board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies evaluate so-called lithium batteries, some of which can be recharged. Tests showed that bulk shipments of the non-rechargeable type "posed a significant fire hazard," Hildrup said. The board probed a battery fire on a passenger plane this year.
A spokeswoman for Atlanta-based UPS, Patti Hobbs, said the company's manager at Philadelphia airport had information about the hazardous materials aboard the DC-8. She did not disclose what they were.
"We operated according to federal regulations," said Frank Skubis, director of safety for UPS. "We intend to continue to do that."
This article contains information from Bloomberg News.
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