Inspection of Expansion Projects Uncovers Fire Risks

Investigators have found serious fire hazards in the new Southwest Airlines terminal at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, Newsday has learned.

The hazards are so significant that they could cause an explosion or allow dangerous natural gas to be drawn into the terminal, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

Spota said he thought immediate action should be taken to address the hazards. Town and airline officials would not respond last night as to the status of the building.

Investigators from the district attorney's governmental corruption bureau, which has been looking into expansion projects at the airport, conducted an inspection of the terminal Monday night along with a fire-safety expert, whom they would not identify. Town officials accompanied them.

"We have been conducting an active investigation into the fire-safety issues in the building," Spota said. "We have uncovered significant problems and notified the town."

Islip Town Attorney Pierce Cohalan said last night the town was aware of problems in the terminal. In a statement, he said: "The Town of Islip and Southwest Airlines have a mutual interest in assuring that our new facility is safe and fully operational. In light of these recent issues, the Town of Islip has contacted Southwest Airlines and requested their cooperation, and that cooperation has been assured. We will fully investigate these facts; and if it is determined that there are issues that require remediation, we will respond in an appropriate manner."

In an interview yesterday, Spota said sprinklers, rather than a chemical fire-suppression system, had been installed in the terminal's main electrical control room, which controls all power in the building. That is a problem because water could cause electricity to arc, sparking an explosion, Spota said.

State fire code allows sprinklers in a room with electrical panels, but stipulates that the spray be directed away from the panels. In the MacArthur control room, they are located directly above the electrical panels, according to a town official who asked not to be identified.

Outside the Southwest terminal, natural-gas pipes are located right underneath air conditioning intake manifolds, according to a former town employee. If there were a gas leak, natural gas could get pulled into the new terminal's main ventilation system.

Investigators found during their inspection Monday that sprinklers above the main entrance to the airport had been disconnected. Fire-safety sources said they had not been properly insulated and froze in the winter.

There also are concerns about the fire-suppression systems in the airport's eateries. No fire inspections have been conducted at one airport restaurant in the new terminal for two years, Spota said. Under state law, annual inspections are required.

On May 2, Newsday requested all fire-safety documents under the Freedom of Information Law, but the town thus far has not released them.

The airport, which is owned and operated by Islip Town, has been undergoing an $82-million expansion to create eight gates for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. Four gates in a new terminal building opened in August 2004, and four additional gates were to open next month.

Last night, Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said in a statement that the airline would conduct its own review of the problems.

"Following a comprehensive review and in consultation with appropriate public officials, all necessary measures, to the extent that any are required, will be taken to ensure that all issues are resolved satisfactorily," she said.

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