Fire at Düsseldorf Airport
We trust the powers that be to know better. They make rules for us about safety, enforce building regulations for our own good, and they send health and safety inspectors round to ensure their high and noble standards are kept, that we may sleep in confidence knowing they watch over us, ready to leap into action should anything go wrong..
Cobblers. I was there at the Düsseldorf airport fire years ago. It broke out just at the time I go through passport control, when I’m on the early flight. That week I was lucky, I was on the late flight.
We heard of it when Jürgen came running in, “Der Flughafen brennt.” he said, “The airport’s on fire”.
We all rushed across the corridor to the window, but even though it’s only half a mile away, there honestly wasn’t much to see. The mist turned a bit darker in that direction, but that was all. I rang Jack, who was at home with flu. He was nearer, but all he could see was a mass of police cars, fire engines, and ambulances.
Soon we could hear the sirens as well, first one, then more and more forming a lunatic chorus as the traffic slowly backed up down our road.
Someone switched on the local radio, they talked about a major incident, but had few details, which was even more worrying. I tried to get some information out of BA, I need not have bothered. BA locally wasn’t answering, which wasn’t surprising, considering that they were in the middle of the fire. BA London were full of blind reassurance, and said “What fire? All flights are running normally. Who told you there was a problem?”
I explained that no-one had told me, it was just that we could see the smoke, and the fire engines and police and I quoted the local radio. The BA voice didn’t sound quite as confident after that.
Then I tried Manchester. They did know about the fire. Someone had rung his wife on his mobile, and she had rung BA and told them. They didn’t know any more however. Perhaps modern airline communications aren’t quite as good as they claim.
I tried Heathrow again later, they told me to go to the airport, and contact the BA rep who would organise everything, and provide buses if needed. I rang my wife to warn her there might be a delay, and, trusting in BA, I went. That was a mistake.
The airport was closed off, and a vast crowd milled around outside the police barriers. Someone from Lufthansa had a mobile phone, a piece of cardboard for a signboard and a bit of brains, and had set up an open air office. BA were nowhere. Even when the BA bus arrived, no-one, including the driver knew what was happening. Foolishly, I got on.
Second mistake, this only went to the main station, thence we had to get to Cologne under our own steam. Cologne bus station was packed, Cologne airport was even worse. It’s a small airport, with a small BA staff. They’d done their best to get emergency cover, someone even came in with the child she had been baby-sitting, and sat it on the counter while she tried to deal with lost travellers. Most passengers were reasonable, but one or two were the sort that make you wish you didn’t come from the same country or even the same species.
There were no flights left, and the best I could do was a flight the next morning. They did offer me a coach to take me to overnight accomodation. This turned out to be the hotel on the oposite side of the road to my flat 40 miles away, so I decided to go back to my flat and phoned my wife again. She had spent the evening answering calls from family who had seen the news, and knew I was usually in the airport at that time.
I got home 24 hours late. By that time the first reports of what had happened were circulating, and they made grim reading.
The airport had been built on two levels, and at one point a road on the upper level ran over a flower shop on the lower level. On this afternoon someone had decided to mend the tarmac on the road.
Regulations said that when working with molten bitumen there should be a safety check of the area underneath. They didn’t bother. If they had they would have found in the roof of the flower shop polystyrene sheets or PVC cabling (I heard both versions). Both burn at rather less than the melting point of bitumen, giving off cyanide and hydrochloric acid. It got sucked into the ventilation system intake. This would have been no problem if there had been smoke detectors. There weren’t any.
Some people did smell the smoke. One man reported it to Lufthansa, who assured him there was no problem. Someone else asked a security man to report it, he replied, “Not on my mobile you can’t.”
Even more unbelievably, when some firemen did come, they decided that it was too much for them to handle alone, but not bad enough to warrant clearing the building while they waited for backup.
Then it was too late. Suddenly the smoke billowed out of every ventilation shaft. One man I met said he ran straight down the stairs and outside, but even in those few seconds his vision had gone. People in lifts had no chance, the doors opened to a choking death. Neither did those in the Air France lounge, which was locked, apparently for safety reasons. The strangest escape was the East European man caught in the gents when they were locked (also for safety reasons presumably). He used his mobile to ring a mate in the city centre, who rang the police, who radioed the fire brigade, who rescued him.
Too many people didn’t make it though., and it was months before even a small part reopened for business. Terminals A and B were still closed months later.
In the meantime even more hazards had been found. Large long halls, with no partitions, ensured that any disaster would be spread quickly. Combustible material gave off poison gas fumes, and there were no detectors. The last I heard was that 10 people faced prosecution for negligently causing a fatal fire.
I think the accused are probably guilty, but I’m far from sure that they’re the real villains. Wherever you look in the story, there are safety precautions which weren’t safe, emergency procedures which couldn’t cope, people in authority giving calm assurances that everything was under control when it wasn’t. I think that’s what I find hardest to accept. I can understand someone making a mistake, I make plenty, but if someone is going to claim to be an expert and to have the right to set rules the rest of us must follow, then they’d better be right.
Of course this wasn’t in this country, it all happened abroad. We can be glad that nothing like that could happen here, in the beef industry for example, or in one of those big city IT projects we keep hearing about.
I often walk past the flower shop where it all started. It doesn’t look very different to what it used to be, for months even the flowers in the window were still there somehow untouched, just a few smoke-stained windows half boarded up, and the entrance was dark and locked. Hardly anything to show that seventeen people died there, and with them a little more of my faith in any authority.