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Hundreds of Flights Disrupted Because of Fire at London’s Heathrow, the World’s Busiest

December 13, 1997 GMT

Hundreds of Flights Disrupted Because of Fire at London’s Heathrow, the World’s Busiest AirportBy ROBERT SEELY

LONDON (AP) _ A smoky fire above a deep-fat fryer at Heathrow billowed 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’ travel plans were postponed or canceled.

The fire broke out in a greasy air duct above a fryer at an airport Burger King before dawn, when the restaurant was closed and the terminal all but deserted.

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``The whole sky above the terminal seemed to be glowing,″ said Bob James, an American oil engineer who landed shortly 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 at 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 jammed in 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 either trapped at Heathrow or abandoning their trip entirely.

Terminals 2 and 3 were shut for about an hour because police closed a tunnel that serves all three terminals _ not because of smoke or flames, but to allow firefighters free access.

Heathrow’s fourth terminal, which mainly handles British Airways long-haul flights, remained open, its concourse seething 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 that built up on the M4 and other roads leading to Heathrow.

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``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,″ Mrs. Kerr added. ``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 and declared it extinguished by midmorning.

London Fire Brigade spokesman Graham Howgate said the fire was confined to a 200-yard stretch of air vent in the roof of Terminal 1, the airport’s busiest terminal, with 70,000 passengers daily.

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, which handles 1,000 flights daily, was used by 57 million people last year.