JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was a scary scenario for travelers aboard a Spirit Airlines flight on Wednesday as crew members and passengers used fire extinguishers to put out a small fire in an overhead bin.
The plane was en route from Dallas to Orlando at the time and had to make an emergency landing at Jacksonville International Airport.
Passenger Rocco Chierichella prevented the fire from getting worse, but burned his hand in the process.
“I’m a retired New York City firefighter, and I guess it’s just instinct,” Chierichella said. “There was luggage overhead, and smoke was pouring out of it.”
Jacksonville firefighters arrived and finished the job after the plane landed.
“It could have been really bad,” Chierichella said.
A total of 10 people were taken to hospital.
Firefighters blame a lithium-ion battery for sending smoke into the cockpit. The problem is traced back to a portable external battery with a USB cable. News4JAX learned that the cable was attached to a vape pen, so it was actively charging that vape, and that’s when something went terribly wrong.
“These batteries, they can produce very volatile organic chemicals – hydrogen fluoride, a very, very bad substance that you don’t want to inhale,” said engineer Shawn Fallon, who is on the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department hazmat team.
Fallon is an expert on battery fires, which he says are happening more often – electric bikes, scooters and cars all have fire hazards. He says that a small battery cell called 18650 can produce up to 8 liters of gas.
News4JAX asked Fallon how people who are traveling can minimize the risk of what happened Wednesday.
“Well, my first suggestion would be: don’t charge your device during the flight, because that charger, we all know when we start charging our phone, it starts to get a little warm,” he said.
He says that defective and cheap knockoff batteries from abroad are a recipe for disaster.
“So I will say this: You get what you pay for,” he said. “So what you have to be aware of is that there are a lot of counterfeit or fake batteries out there.”
And when you’re at home, he recommends unplugging your devices and not leaving them charging unattended.
News4JAX checked with Consumer Reports, whose experts say keep batteries in carry-on bags, not checked bags. That way, any problems can be solved early.
Experts also suggest taping the ends of any battery terminals so they don’t come into contact with metals or anything that could cause them to start a fire.
Spirit Airlines issued a statement that said in part, “We thank our crew and our guests for their quick actions to ensure the safety of everyone on board, and we thank first responders for meeting the aircraft.”
The Federal Aviation Administration reports eight in-flight fires caused by fires in 2022 alone and 357 incidents since 2006.
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