A smoky fire above a deep-fat fryer at a Heathrow airport Burger King turned into a major transportation debacle Friday, snarling air traffic across Western Europe as it disrupted hundreds of flights at the world’s busiest international airport.
No one was injured, but thousands of passengers were forced to postpone or cancel their travel plans.
The fire broke out before dawn in a greasy air duct above a fryer at the Burger King, when the restaurant was closed and the terminal was all but deserted.
“The whole sky above the terminal seemed to be glowing,” said Bob James, an American oil engineer who landed after the fire started. “All you could see was smoke and flames.”
The blaze temporarily shut down three of the four terminals, causing delays for more than 50,000 airline passengers and massive traffic jams on roads leading to the airport, 15 miles west of central London.
Some motorists abandoned cars alongside the M4, the main highway leading to Heathrow, and tried walking to the terminal carrying their luggage.
Heathrow’s Terminal 1, where the fire broke out, reopened in the mid-afternoon, after workers around the Burger King mopped up pools of water from firefighters’ hoses.
By then, more than 300 flights to the terminal, which handles British, Irish and European flights, had been canceled or diverted, and thousands of passengers were crammed into the open terminals.
Dozens of incoming flights were diverted to Stansted, east of London, or to Southampton, on the south England coast.
SAS, the Scandinavian airline, said 11 of its Heathrow-bound flights from Copenhagen, Denmark, were diverted and came back empty; the passengers were either trapped at Heathrow or had abandoned their trip entirely.
Terminals 2 and 3 were shut for about an hour because police closed a tunnel that serves all three terminals to allow firefighters free access.
Heathrow’s fourth terminal, which mainly handles British Airways long-haul flights, remained open, its concourse teeming with passengers from Terminal 1.
British Airways canceled three long-haul flights - to Tokyo, Los Angeles and San Francisco - because many passengers failed to show up, apparently caught in traffic jams on the M4 and other roads leading to Heathrow.
The airline said it expects flight schedules largely to have returned to normal by today.
“As we came into land at Heathrow, the pilot said Terminal 1 was on fire. We were told just to wait in Terminal 4,” said Marion Kerr, who landed early Friday with her daughter Sophie, 10, from Bangkok, Thailand. They were due to transfer to Terminal 1 to get home to Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“We’ve spent eight hours sitting in Terminal 4 and no one seemed to know what was happening,” Kerr said. “We’ve just got to sit here and keep our fingers crossed.”
About 70 firefighters brought the blaze under control after 3-1/2 hours. Despite the flames and smoke billowing from the roof, only 5 percent of the building was damaged, mainly by smoke and water sprayed by firefighters, Howgate said.
Heathrow handles 1,000 flights daily.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.