Federal investigators on Friday launched a probe of an airliner fire at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that observers speculated could have been sparked by fuel leaking from the plane.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said they will be examining whether fuel was leaking from the Venezuelan-bound Dynamic International Airways jet before takeoff on Thursday, as witnesses observed.
NTSB investigator in charge Tim LeBaron told news reporters that the agency’s four-person team will try to determine the root of the fire in the Boeing 767’s left engine.
“I know there’s been a lot people saying that fuel was coming from the airplane,” LeBaron said at the airport. “Well, they saw a fluid coming from the airplane. We don’t know at this point if it was fuel or not.
“So that’s one of the things that we look at.”
NTSB investigators will also examine the airliner’s data recorders, maintenance history and other records.
LeBaron said NTSB will issue a preliminary report in five days, another report in six months and final findings in a year.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday that the passenger plane that caught fire Thursday had no prior incidents or issues.
The engine fire forced 101 passengers and crew on board to evacuate via emergency slides. Of those, 21 people were sent to a local hospital. Nineteen were treated and discharged, and two were admitted for further observation.
“Both patients are stable,” said Amy Erez, spokeswoman for Broward Health Medical Center.
Dynamic Airways officials said they were making arrangements for the passengers to fly to Venezuela on other flights on Friday and over the weekend.
As Dynamic Flight 405 taxied toward the runway just after 12:30 p.m. Thursday, the engine and wing burst into flames. That set off a rush for the exits for the passengers and crew members on board.
The dramatic scene, with thick black smoke pouring from the plane, had passengers sliding down emergency chutes and onto the taxiway. The Venezuela-bound Boeing 767 was 30 yards and minutes away from takeoff.
Flights were halted at the airport for more than three hours, with one of the two runways opening after 3:30 p.m. In total, 219 flights were delayed and 47 were canceled. By Thursday evening, operations were back to normal with the second runway opening just before 8 p.m.
Operations at the airport had to be halted on Thursday because the fire-rescue vehicles used to fight the fire needed to be restocked. Airport firefighters quickly rolled to the plane and extinguished the flames, watering and foaming the smoldering engine and wing.
Airline officials say they are reviewing records for the plane, which was last inspected in June. According to FAA records, the plane, manufactured in 1986, was checked Sept. 5 for aircraft safety.
“We would not like to speculate about the potential causes of the incident during the ongoing investigation, and all of us at Dynamic are committed to fully cooperating with the [NTSB] and other authorities,” Don Dodson, Dynamic’s director of operations, said in a statement.
A pilot in an aircraft behind the plane and an air-traffic controller reported fuel leaking from it before the fire, The Associated Press reported.
An air-traffic controller told the pilot “a lot of fluid” was leaking from his left engine and then urgently said the engine had caught fire and that he was dispatching firefighters, according to an audio recording posted by WSVN. Passengers reported seeing flames both on the left side of the plane and on the ground.
The 6-year-old discount airline is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, and started daily service over the summer between Fort Lauderdale and Caracas. The airline flies seven 767s and serves Fort Lauderdale, New York, Guyana and Venezuela.
Miami Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this report.