Bus catches fire at BWI

Flames destroy cars

lot closure creates parking problems

August 11, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

An airport shuttle bus at Baltimore-Washington International Airport went up in flames yesterday morning, destroying or damaging 11 cars, forcing the closure of a satellite parking lot, and sending airport passengers scrambling for parking spaces.

The bus driver and the five passengers aboard the airport's Super Shuttle were not injured, and managed to grab their luggage before bolting from the smoking bus, which was consumed in flames in two minutes.

"It was pretty much a meltdown," said Chuck Holm, a shuttle passenger who boarded another bus with his fellow passengers in time to catch his flight to Detroit.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section misidentified a natural-gas-powered bus that burned at Baltimore-Washington International Airport as a Super Shuttle. The bus was a BWI Airport parking lot shuttle bus. The Sun regrets the errors.

Airport officials said this is the first time a fire has occurred on one of the BWI shuttle buses, which are powered by natural gas. The buses, which cost between $185,000 and $200,000, have been in use since 1993.

"Clearly, it's an unusual occurrence," said Betsey P. Sanpere, an airport spokeswoman. She said that the bus and three cars parked nearby were destroyed, and eight other cars in the lot were damaged.

"Everybody's fine, and that's the good news," Sanpere said.

The fire occurred about 11: 15 a.m. as the shuttle bus was ferrying passengers from the "blue" satellite parking lot to the airport terminals.

"One of the passengers in the back of the bus said, `It's smoking back here,' " Holm said. "We jumped off with our luggage, and within two minutes it was totally engulfed in smoke and flames."

Allen Gosnell, a spokesman with the state fire marshal's office, said investigators determined that the fire started with a mechanical failure in the engine compartment. He said the natural gas did not contribute to the start of the fire, but did fan the flames. The gas escaped before the six tanks exploded.

"Once the tanks heated up and the gas was released, it certainly added to the fire's condition," Gosnell said.

Investigators estimated the damage at $400,000, including the shuttle bus.

Sal Maso, the general manager at Hudson General -- which operates the shuttle bus services at BWI -- said the company's insurance carrier will cover the cost of the damage from the fire.

"We're very proud of the actions of our operator and grateful that no one was hurt," Maso said. He would not comment further.

Airport officials said Hudson General has run shuttle services at BWI for 13 years. Maryland Parking, which operates parking at the airport, contracted with Hudson General for $10 million a year to operate shuttles to the satellite and employee parking lots and the Amtrak train station. Hudson General is paid through airport parking revenues.

Airport officials said Maryland Transportation Authority police are tracking down owners of the destroyed and damaged cars. The travelers who can't be contacted are undoubtedly in for a shock when they return to Row BB in the blue lot and find no car.

When they show up, Sanpere said, a parking attendant will call them a taxi to take them to the terminal, where they can file a police report. Then the taxi will take them home.

Although disaster was averted, the parking lot fire caused inconvenience. The 5,393-space lot was closed until late afternoon, while state fire investigators examined the bus. However, airport patrons who had parked in the blue lot were able to retrieve their cars.

The second satellite lot and the express lot were open, but parking spots were difficult to come by. Even on the highest levels of the terminal lots, cars circled in search of spaces.

"It took me 45 minutes," said an exasperated Phyllis Cohen as she rushed to meet her nephew's plane.

Michele Forbes said she thought her daughter was going to miss her flight to San Diego, because she couldn't find a parking space.

"I drove around on every level," said Forbes, of Northern Virginia. "I had heard how wonderful this airport is, but I'm not too impressed with the parking situation."

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