Broward County

Fire aboard plane at Fort Lauderdale airport injures more than 20, halts hundreds of flights

Passengers are evacuated from a plane on fire at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015.
Passengers are evacuated from a plane on fire at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. AFP/Getty Images

Andres Gallegos had one thing on his mind as he sat in Seat 12A for his flight to Caracas: a weekend visit with his wife and kids.

In a flash, he had another thing on his mind: survival.

First, he heard a loud bang. Then he peered out the window to see his plane on fire.

As Dynamic International Airways Flight 405 taxied toward the runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport just after 12:30 p.m. Thursday, the engine and wing burst into flames. That set off a rush for the exits for the 101 passengers and crew members on board.

“I was the second passenger leaving the aircraft,” said Gallegos, who works in Miami. “We spent probably 30 to 40 seconds before they opened the door. It was pretty nerve-racking to know the door wasn’t opening and something was on fire.”

The dramatic scene, with thick black smoke pouring from the plane, had passengers sliding down emergency chutes and onto the taxiway.

Disaster averted. The Venezuela-bound Boeing 767 was 30 yards and minutes away from takeoff.

“It’s traumatic,” said airport spokesman Greg Meyer. “If you look out the window and see a fire, it’s not what you want to see.”

The engine fire damaged the jetliner and sent about two dozen people to the hospital, mostly with minor injuries. One person had a head injury. Dozens were evaluated at the airport.

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 “pretty much back to normal,” Meyer said, with the second runway opening just before 8 p.m.

Meyer doesn’t expect flight delays on Friday morning.

Operations at the airport had to be halted Thursday afternoon because the fire-rescue vehicles used to fight the fire needed to be restocked, said Mike Jachles, a spokesman for Broward Sheriff Fire-Rescue. And the charred plane — surrounded by foam — couldn’t be moved until investigators gave the OK.

A jetliner bound for Venezuela burst into flames just before flight Thursday, sending passengers sliding down emergency chutes and onto the runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The shaken passengers were whisked off to a private family room. Late in the afternoon, passengers said that Dynamic Airlines had not reached out to them and that many were being held in the room while their passports and bags were still on the plane.

“The pilot was completely silent. We haven’t heard anything,” passenger Camilia Diaz-Petkoff said at the time. “We want to know what happened.”

She said that passengers stayed calm during the emergency and as they exited the plane.

“We are safe; we are well,” Diaz-Petkoff said.

By Thursday evening, airline representatives had spoken to passengers, telling them the company would pay for an overnight hotel stay and have a new flight ready to leave by Friday morning.

Don Dodson, Dynamic’s director of operations, said the airline set up a crisis center to help passengers.

Airline officials say they are reviewing records for the plane, which was last inspected in June. According to Federal Aviation Administration 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 [National Transportation Safety Board] and other authorities,” Dodson said in a statement.

The sight of the burning plane shocked witnesses, some of whom whipped out their cellphone cameras to capture the chaos. One man in the terminal said he thought the plane was going to explode before firefighters arrived.

Daniela Magro, 20, said that if it weren’t for her older brother calming her down, she would have “freaked out.”

“I was terrified,’” she said, adding that going down the chute was difficult because she couldn’t see in front of her because of the smoke.

Airport firefighters quickly rolled to the plane and extinguished the flames, watering and foaming the smoldering engine and wing. Jachles said the first crews were at the burning plane within two minutes.

“We train for this,” said Meyer, the airport spokesman. “We know what to do.”

A pilot in an aircraft behind the Dynamic International Airways 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 NTSB is sending a four-person team to Fort Lauderdale to investigate the fire, according to the agency.

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.

The company said it scheduled a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Caracas at 8 p.m. Thursday, and a flight from Caracas to Fort Lauderdale was to depart at 2 a.m. Friday, Caracas time. The airline also instituted a toll-free number for passengers on the flight — 1-888-283-2157.

“The crew followed the emergency procedures, shut down the engine and evacuated the aircraft in order to assure safety to all on board,” the airline said in a statement. “The company is conducting an initial investigation and will issue further information once available.”

Miami Herald writer Alex Harris contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.