Officials say firefighters faced potentially deadly conditions battling airport fire

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Passengers Stranded, Flights Canceled After Atlanta Airport Loses Power

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Leaders with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department told only WSBTV how firefighters faced potentially deadly conditions while battling an electrical fire blamed for Sunday's blackout at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In an exclusive interview with WSBTV'S investigative reporter Aaron Diamant, those leaders admitted when the alarms went off just before 1 p.m., it took a while for fire crews to figure out what they were dealing with.

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They soon learned the conditions inside an airport service tunnel, where that fire raged, were some of the most challenging and dangerous they had ever faced.

“I cannot overstate the bravery and courage with which they responded that Sunday,” First Deputy Chief Randall Slaughter told Diamant Wednesday afternoon.

Slaughter offered high praise for the dozens of firefighters, who descended into the tunnel to battle the electrical fire blamed for the epic blackout.

“The reality is American firefighters die in these type of below-grade fires all the time,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter described, in detail, what this team was up against.

“Heavily charged with dark black smoke, high temperatures, and you’re not really sure where the fire is, but you know you have a fire -- that’s a pretty scary proposition,” Slaughter told Diamant.

Slaughter listed one more disturbing dynamic, which he said initially made matters worse.

“We didn’t know if it was an act of terrorism,” said Slaughter. “We just didn’t know.”

While thousands of frustrated passengers remained in darkened concourses, it took firefighters nearly two hours to put the fire out. Investigators searching for a cause quickly ruled out foul play.

“It makes things simpler, obviously, it eases a lot of tension not only on my guys, but on the city as well,” explained AFRD Investigations Section Chief James Oliver.

Still, Oliver told Diamant his investigators were keenly aware of the demand for answers given the fire’s impact. “The pressure, obviously, is a lot higher,” Oliver said.

It was Oliver’s investigators who discovered that a Georgia Power switcher inside the tunnel, which manages the airport’s main and backup power sources, failed and caused a spark that ignited surrounding insulation.

Oliver told Diamant it’s up to Georgia Power to figure out why the switcher failed. Still, Oliver will monitor Georgia Power’s investigation closely.

"It’s always very important to me, no matter whatever case we’re working, to get to the bottom (of it), so we can try to prevent things like this from happening in the future," he said.

A Georgia Power spokesperson told Diamant that company inspectors are still working to figure out why that piece of equipment failed, but AFRD investigators say it’s possible they may never learn exactly why.