Welders face charges over airport blaze

Dusseldorf disaster: Prosecutors focus on workmen in probe into fire which killed 16, including British soldier
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The Independent Online

German prosecutors may press criminal charges against welders believed to have started the fire at Dusseldorf airport which killed 16 people including a British soldier named yesterday as Martin Smith.

But airport authorities are also under investigation after it emerged that firefighters were not called until half an hour after the blaze broke out, and some passengers complained there were no alarms.

Martin Smith, 22, was travelling home to Tamworth, Staffordshire, on leave from his German base in Munster where he served with the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards when he was caught in the blaze which engulfed the terminal in 15 minutes.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said he was single and had enlisted in in 1992. "This is a sad death," he added.

Seven Germans, including a seven-year-old boy, six French people and two Italians also died. The German government ordered federal buildings to fly their flags at half-mast.

Two people were critically ill last night out of 62 taken to hospital suffering from the effects of thick black smoke which filled the hall and sparked panic among 2,500 staff and travellers.

German prosecutors said they were considering criminal charges against maintenance workers. They believe welders inadvertently melted a bitumen sealant which dripped onto a false floor containing electrical wiring.

PVC-covered cables began to smoulder, emitting cyanide, chloride, carbon monoxide and possibly dioxin fumes which spread through the building's ventilation shafts.

Rolf Chanteaux, a prosecutor, said: "We have opened an investigation for negligent arson and negligent killing."

The fire, Germany's worst ever at an airport, broke out at 3.30pm on Thursday, but initially only the airport's own firefighters were called.

They arrived within a minute, but flames spread like wildfire through cables in the ceiling and they appear to have been helpless to tackle it.

City firefighters were not called for nearly half an hour, said a spokesman, Wolfgang Roehr. When they discovered the seriousness of the blaze, they immediately issued an alert bringing in pumps from across the city. It was 4.25pm before the airport was fully evacuated and five hours before the fire was brought under control.

Survivors spoke of smoke taking only seconds to envelop the 250-yard hall. Angelina Russo, an Italian who arrived with her two-month baby on one of the last flights to land, said: "I was frightened, just frightened."

The airport will not re-open until Monday. Spokesman Jorn Bucher said the whole of Terminal A was badly burnt-out, Terminal B suffered moderate damage and there were some problems in Terminal C.

More than 160,000 passengers who should have passed through the airport, Germany's second biggest, this weekend will be re-routed.

Last night, British safety experts and engineers said they hoped sensible precautions would prevent a similar disaster in this country.

John Oldman, London Fire Brigade's divisional commander covering Heathrow, said they had regular exercises to enable quick response to any fire call.

They were alerted whenever there was a report of fire, providing a minimum of two pumps within five minutes and a further appliance within another three. "We are called on each and every occasion," he said. Fire regulations in Britain stipulated fire-stopping measures to prevent flames ripping along cables as appears to have happened in Dusseldorf.

But one particular problem for airports was that not all passengers would understand announcements if they were panicking in an emergency."Nobody should be complacent. Clearly we will look very carefully to see if there are lessons to be learned from Dusseldorf," he said.

Peter Bressington, a fire engineer with Ove Arup engineers, said certain building features would create problems. People became affected more quickly by smoke in rooms with low ceilings, which are understood to have been a feature in Dusseldorf's 25-year-old airport. Finishing materials such as wood and plastic rather than steel and marble were also a danger.

Mr Bressington said his firm had also received reports from a member of its staff who was at the airport that the fire alarms were not working.

A spokeswoman for the British Airport Authority, which covers seven airports including Gatwick and Heathrow, said they had an "excellent safety record" and there were very strict rules to prevent a similar disaster here.