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Fire forces Huntsville-bound jet to land in Rome, GA

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Fri May 09 2003, 01:25 PM
CD
Fire forces Huntsville-bound jet to land in Rome, GA
Fire forces Huntsville-bound jet to land in Rome, GA

A suspicious fire aboard a Comair flight from Atlanta to Huntsville, Ala., forced a landing at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport Thursday night. The pilot of Comair Flight 5491 from Atlanta to Huntsville reported smoke in the aircraft shortly after it took off from Atlanta.

The Bombardier CRJ twin-engine jet landed safely on Russell Airport�s main runway about 7:50 p.m. No injuries were reported among the 48 passengers and three crew members on the 50-passenger regional jet, Comair spokesman Nick Miller said.

Cincinnati-based Comair is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.

�From what I understand, everyone was able to get off the plane in a normal manner,� Miller said. �They had smoke in the cabin and diverted to Rome. That�s all I have at this point. It is under investigation.�

Local authorities said the smoke came from a fire in the lavatory of the plane.

The FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board were called to investigate the fire, which was termed suspicious, said Floyd County Police Sgt. Danny Logan.

�There was smoke on the plane, and obviously we are very interested in where it came from,� said FBI Special Agent Bob Meadows.

Passengers said they did not notice any problems until they saw the flight attendant heading to the restroom, located in the rear of the plane, with a fire extinguisher, said Donna Mayes, a passenger from Huntsville.

�When he walked back to get the fire extinguisher, I knew there was something seriously wrong,� said Rick Mellinger, a passenger from Orlando, who was going to Huntsville on business. �They dropped in a hurry. They handled it well. We�re here in one piece.�

�I was sitting there reading and the flight attendant (Turhan J. Lamons) says we�re going back to Atlanta,� said Paul Jackson, who was returning to Huntsville from a business trip. �Then he ran back and got a fire extinguisher and then they said we were going to land in Rome instead. It was tense but nobody panicked. It was really hot on the plane.

�Nobody noticed anything until they saw the flight attendant go back to the bathroom.�

Bob Giesen, a passenger from Watertown, Conn., said he smelled smoke seven or eight minutes after takeoff.

�The attendant handled it really well and everyone remained calm,� Giesen said.

Passenger Larry Fine, manager of flight operations at NASA in Huntsville, said the smell of smoke was not strong.

�It was kind of like walking into a barbecue restaurant,� said Fine, who is also a pilot. �As a pilot, whenever you notice any smoke, the first thing you do is get on the ground.�

The emergency landing highlighted the need for more safety equipment at the airport, said Rome pilot Gary Tillman.

�We said that it�s just going to be a matter of time before we have an emergency landing and we need to think about having equipment,� Tillman said.

FBI agents began questioning passengers about 9:30 p.m., taking passengers into the airport conference room one at a time.

Meadows asked the passengers not to discuss the events of the flight until they had been questioned.

�We want your story, not your buddy�s or your neighbor�s,� he said. He specifically asked passengers who were sitting in the last four rows of the aircraft if they had seen anyone go into the restroom before the plane took off from Hartsfield International Airport. �We want to talk to you first,� Meadows said.

The FBI also instructed Rome firefighters not to comment, said Battalion Chief Charles Evans.

Rick Ramsey, the airport maintenance worker who was on duty Thursday night, said things started happening quickly after the first emergency call came in.

Jack Allen with the Atlanta Flight Center called Russell Airport at 7:35 p.m. requesting assistance for an emergency landing and asked that emergency vehicles stand by, according a recording of the conversation.

�They were probably about 12 miles out when they called in,� Ramsey said. �The fire trucks and ambulances got here about four minutes after the call came in. The plane landed about 10 minutes later.�

Airport Manager Mike Matthews said he can�t remember a commercial jet ever making an emergency landing at the aiport. The airport has occasionally seen small, single-engine planes forced down, he said.

Matthews said he was surprised how fast rescue workers responded.

One of the passengers on the plane was Dr. William McCorkle, director of the Research, Development and Engineering Center of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

A bus was scheduled to arrive at Russell Airport around midnight to take the passengers to Huntsville, about three hours from Rome.

Passengers waiting in the airport terminal stopped talking and turned the television up when a Delta Airlines commercial came on.

Airport officials ordered 30 pizzas from a Rome restaurant to be delivered to the airport.

�Right now we are cooperating with authorities and working on getting transportation for the passengers to Atlanta,� Miller said.
Sat May 10 2003, 02:36 AM
BF
CD, Thanks-that's an odd one. Hope we hear a conclusion on this.

Barbara