Fire Crew Stands on Alert at LAX's '50-Yard Line' for Potential Disasters

Times Staff Writer

Just like at any firehouse, when the day's schedule of training drills, inspections and equipment maintenance has been completed and what remains is waiting for the inevitable next call, there's sometimes a card game in the kitchen at Task Force 80 of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

The passion at 80's, as the station is called, is hearts and they have a standing joke about amending their tax returns to reflect their losses, though at a penny a hand, this is nothing more than comic relief. The coffee is always hot, if not always fresh.

Four Fire Engines

There are four fire engines in the apparatus bay at 80's, each of them much larger than the pumpers and hook and ladders that are the staples of the fire service. And on the front of one of these four lime-yellow behemoths is one word no one at an airport wants to see but that says more about the mission at 80's than anything else possibly could.

In foot-high block letters, it reads: "CRASH."

It's a new firehouse--completed last May--with a row of plate glass windows in the kitchen affording an unobstructed view of traffic passing on the roadway outside. Capt. Mike Wigfield looked up from the kitchen table matter-of-factly one day recently as he heard something drive by outside.

"That's one of those 747s that United got from Pan Am," he observed before returning his attention to a newspaper. Outside Station 80, the huge Boeing lumbered past, followed by a DC-10 and a line of smaller jet airliners looking a bit like ducklings following their mother.

The station sits almost exactly at the halfway point between the two major east-west runway complexes at Los Angeles International Airport, a spot officially known as the "50-yard line." From this position, the four trucks and 12 men assigned to the station on each of three rotating 24-hour shifts must be able to get anywhere on the airport grounds in three minutes or less, ready to deal with a disaster of worst-possible-case magnitude.

That incident, the way it is figured now, would be a high-speed collision, on the ground on the airport property or just outside, of two fully loaded 747s, each carrying as many as 500 people and brimming with more than 45,000 gallons of jet fuel.

This, of course, has never happened at LAX. But such an accident has happened, on March 27, 1977, at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, killing 581. And the potential for such disaster exists every day the airport operates. In fact, a review of firehouse log books during 16 hours a reporter and photographer spent at 80's recently indicates that airport close calls are more numerous than many passengers may think and many airlines may want to admit.

Firehouse Keeps Busy

By no means is 80's an idle firehouse. It responds to an average of nearly 1,100 calls a year of which about 300 involve such things as bomb threats (about a quarter of the total of serious incidents), airliners landing with one or more engines shut down (or, on occasion, on fire), and a range of other serious problems, including flaps that don't work, balky landing gear, fuel leaks and hydraulic failures. The rest of its call load is for such things as fuel spills and even motor vehicle fires and crashes on the airport grounds.

Fires in engine compartments and landing gear wells are fairly common. Close calls are comparatively frequent. Within the last few months, 80's has dealt with a TWA 747 landing too fast and nearly running off the end of the runway because one engine had failed, a TWA L-1011 landing with one of its three engines shut down and a fire warning sounding in a second engine and an Air France 747 that took off only to suffer an engine failure so severe the cowling around the motor burst and briefly caught fire before the plane made a safe emergency landing.

Then there was the AirCal flight coming in from Ontario with hydraulic system problems. It landed on the south complex, where the runways are 12,000 feet long, but if the landing had had to occur on the shorter north complex, the plane could easily have gone off the end of the runway. "Often, the factors that make the difference between a safe landing and no incident and a real catastrophe are so subtle," noted Capt. Bill King, who was sharing that day's command of the task force with Wigfield.

No Foam on Runways

Dashing one stereotype about airport firefighting, Wigfield noted that spreading foam on runways has not been done at LAX in 10 years because U.S. Navy fire suppression researchers concluded that crashing airplanes often bounce unpredictably out of the foam and that a foamed runway doesn't prevent fire in a crash, anyway.

The numbers of incidents are not large in comparison to the number of flight operations the airport handles. A total of 37.6 million passengers pass through the airport every year--more than 100,000 a day--and there have been no aircraft accident fatalities in more than eight years. There were 1,602 takeoffs and landings on the Friday of the visit by The Times, and 80's left quarters on three calls--the statistical average for a day.

There was one fuel spill at an AirCal boarding gate and two bomb threats against PSA planes, one of which was viewed by the firemen as potentially serious. That particular Friday was a bad day for PSA. Two of its other planes, in Sacramento and San Francisco, were the object of bomb threats, too.

Firemen say the total number of emergencies and the low number of truly serious incidents that result make clear that airliners are basically safe.

The Stakes Are High

What makes the stakes so high for 80's, though, is the potential for what could happen, a deliberation that inevitably focuses at LAX on March 1, 1978. That was the day a Continental Airlines DC-10 bound for Hawaii carrying 195 people aborted its takeoff in a rainstorm, blew two tires, skidded off the east end of the north runway complex, collapsed part of its landing gear and caught fire.

Just three people were killed--two of them, firemen say, because they disobeyed a flight attendant's instructions and jumped out of the burning airplane from a doorway where there was no evacuation slide--and the way the incident was handled has become a textbook example of what firemen all over the country see as airport crash protection success.

Sitting in a study room behind the office at 80's, firefighter Jim Dunn, the driver of one of the task force's three foam trucks (the fourth engine is a special high-speed rapid intervention vehicle), remembers the morning well. "It was about 9:25," he said. "We were at the old station (a building on the perimeter of the airport now called Station 51 that houses a conventional fire department task force), having a drill in the squad room on some problems they had when a DC-6 crashed at Van Nuys a few months before."

In any other firehouse in the city, it would be highly unusual to find someone who had been continuously assigned there since an incident that occurred eight years before. But Dunn is far from alone at 80's, where half of the 12 men who responded in the first-wave assault on the fire that stormy March morning are still assigned to the task force. The newest man in the firehouse came to 80's six years ago, and one firefighter assigned there has been in the crash unit 18 years.

Three of the firemen, including Wigfield, are pilots themselves and another three are married to airline flight attendants. One fireman is an electronics buff who specializes in aircraft communications systems.

Because what 80's does is so exotic--in comparison to fighting structure fires in the rest of the city--officials figure it takes three to five years to fully train a newly assigned fireman. And once trained, someone at 80's represents too much of an investment in specialized expertise to justify reassignment under most circumstances unless he is promoted to a higher rank.

'Time Means Everything'

"We heard the long ring (the telephone link directly from the control tower to the firehouse) and I think they said they had a DC-10 on fire at the (end) of (runway) 24," Dunn recalled. "We knew it was a fire because as soon as we pulled out of quarters, you could see this giant loomup (cloud of smoke). We're thinking we're going to get there as quick as we can. And now, it's a contest against everything to do that. Time means everything in an aircraft fire."

At that time, the crash unit was split between two engine houses and the foam truck at the closer of the two had actually heard the tires on the Continental jet blow and took off after the airliner while it was still skidding down the runway. "What was going through my mind? Well, basically, you're kind of reviewing your operation and trying to just kind of hang loose and do the best you can once you get there.

"It's just like a football team working on plays. You do this and that when something happens.

"I was very concerned about the people inside. When we approached, we were not aware there was an evacuation going on (because the plane had turned in its skid so it was lying sideways). It wasn't until the fire was out that we realized there was an evacuation and we were very pleased to learn about that.

"We went in real close on the left side (the left side of the airliner had caught fire and was burning furiously while passengers were being evacuated on the right side, where the fire was far less intense). We made our first pass along the fuselage (spraying foam at the rate of 750 gallons a minute) and we didn't do anything to the fire. Then we dropped the second pump (each of the foam trucks has two identical motors and sets of pumps) into gear and changed the application rate to 1,500 (gallons), made a couple of sweeps and knocked it down."

At the scene of the fire in which 195 lives had hung in the balance, the task force commander of 80's, a captain who has since retired, had transmitted only one radio command, directing Dunn's foam speeding truck to approach from the left side. Everything else had occurred as a result of instinct and practice.

Dunn had been at the scene about 30 seconds when the fire was extinguished.

Firefighter Dennis Clements was at the airport that day, too. But Clements, who had just been assigned to the task force a few weeks before was there as a passenger, with his wife, Susan, a United flight attendant, inbound aboard the first airliner to land at LAX after the Continental plane caught fire. "I guess I was a little disappointed" not to be involved in the rescue operation, Clements said.

It is the kind of emotion any fireman might feel in a similar situation. Clements remembers saying to himself in the split second after he saw what had happened on the ground: "Damnit, I missed it! I was off ."

He understands that what is the case throughout the fire service--that firemen spend most of their time waiting for the worst to happen and comparatively little time responding to the worst when it does--is true in spades at 80's.

Bill Stavis, a seven-year veteran of 80's, said a constant routine of training--including endless familiarization drills so firemen know, for instance, that the emergency access hatch from the passenger compartment to the baggage hold of a DC-10 is in the floor near the seventh window in front of the third door on the right side of the airplane--helps the task force stay ready for the emergency that so seldom comes.

'This Could Be the Time'

"I don't think any of us have any trouble staying prepared to go," said Stavis. "At any time, we can go from nothing wrong to 500 people being in danger that quick ."

"If they paid firemen by piecework, a lot of guys would starve to death," Clements joked. "But we've all been around here long enough to realize that any time a plane calls up in trouble, this could be the time there is a disaster."

But if the general reality is valid at 80's, things are also a little different there, too. The problem, explained Wigfield, is that the combination of a tight concentration of people and large amounts of flammable liquid in an airliner means that if significant numbers of lives are to be saved in a crash and fire, firemen will have only two or three minutes to act successfully.

Two of the big foam trucks at 80's are among the largest such vehicles manufactured. They are 45 feet long, 13 feet high, weigh 55 3/4 tons, are driven by eight 6-foot wheels and cost $1.2 million when they were new in 1979. They carry 4,000 gallons of water and about 500 gallons of foam concentrate and can shoot a stream of foam, driven by twin 492-horsepower turbocharged diesels, about 200 feet at a force strong enough to nearly cut a person in two.

CRASH 80, which can zoom down the runway at about 75 miles an hour, is smaller--a mere 21 tons and 28 feet. It can't pump as much water/foam mixture. At a fire, CRASH 80 would approach the plane first and be the closest, leading a desperate attempt to get to the plane and evacuate the passengers and crew. The third foam truck is about the same size as the crash truck.

'There Are No Backups'

But with this firepower comes a serious limitation. Once they surround a burning plane, the four vehicles together have enough water and foam to last only two minutes. There would not be enough time to refill their tanks if an aircraft was burning out of control. The simple reality, said Wigfield, is that "there are no backups.

"We have one shot at it. It has to be done within a matter of a minute or two or we're going to lose a lot of people."

A key to success is the relationship between the driver of each foam truck and the fireman who manipulates the two high-pressure nozzles that spray the foam. Dunn is still breaking in his current partner, who started working the turret, as such duty is called, only about six months ago. Before that, Dunn had worked with the same turret man for a decade.

Manipulating the turret, said Dunn, "is kind of like playing Atari, only it's for keeps."

It was Friday afternoon, an hour after a lunch of something approximating burritos, cooked by Clements. All four of the vehicles from 80's were on taxiways participating in a routine, fire department-wide earthquake simulation in which every company in the city leaves its quarters and rehearses what it would do in the event of a real temblor. In the case of 80's, the first stop had been the tank farm behind the fire station where 20 million gallons of jet fuel is stored.

Simulated reports crackled on the fire department radio as engine companies reported imaginary building collapses and a fireboat in San Pedro was sent to fight a nonexistent refinery fire. But the aircraft radios that are always turned on in CRASH 80 suddenly diverted Wigfield's attention.

PSA flight 453, which had just taken off from Burbank, bound for Oakland, was about to land because a telephone caller had told the airline switchboard a passenger on board intended to kill himself by blowing the plane out of the sky. The McDonnell Douglas MD80 with 150 people aboard was 10 miles east of LAX, on final approach, having made an emergency turn toward the airport because there are more firefighting units available there than at Burbank. It was not a drill.

Reality About Bomb Threats

There is a simple reality about bomb threats, which come across the radio described as "bravo tangos," and it is that there hasn't been one in the U.S. yet in which an airliner has actually been blown up, though, in recent years, three explosive devices have been intercepted at LAX before they were put on airplanes.

And as CRASH 80 started to accelerate, Wigfield observed that PSA 453 would probably end up as just another false alarm. He would turn out, three hours later after a search by FBI agents and dogs and officers of the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad, to be right.

Airport police surrounded the plane as it taxied to a remote section of the runway near the Pacific Ocean and CRASH 80 swung around facing the airliner head on, about 100 yards from the cockpit while one of the two big foam rigs took up a position off to one side of the tail. In the cab of CRASH 80, Wigfield cursed suddenly, muttering expletives as airport police brought two buses right up to the plane to evacuate passengers.

"Now, if it blows up, it'll take the passengers with it," Wigfield said sharply as he reached for a radio microphone to order the buses moved farther away so passengers would not be sitting inside them if the plane exploded.

In the big foam truck at the other end of the PSA plane, King observed the evacuation, too, later observing that "we have to handle each one of them as if it was a real threat.

"It (a bomb and explosion) is going to happen one of these days."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World