Mysterious fire breaks out on cargo plane

Two pilots of a DHL cargo plane preparing for takeoff Saturday night escaped from an onboard fire by crawling out of the plane’s cockpit windows.

The two were the only occupants of the Boeing 767 when a fire at San Francisco International Airport started immediately behind the flight deck, blocking the exit doors, according to airport officials.

No one was hurt in the incident, which occurred in the remote cargo area of the airport. However, about 100 workers in nearby buildings had to be evacuated for about an hour and the co-pilot was taken to a local hospital as a precautionary measure, airport Duty Manager John Ginty said.

A team of fire, explosive and aviation experts from the National Transportation Safety Board were flown to the airport Sunday to investigate what may have ignited the fire, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway. He said such investigations can often take 18 months.

The plane, operated by DHL-owned Airborne Express, was loaded with standard express shipments, according to a statement by the company issued Sunday.

The San Francisco Fire Department’s Airport Division started receiving calls about smoke coming from the plane around 10:12 p.m. Saturday, Ginty said. Fire responders were on scene within two minutes and immediately deemed it a high-alert situation, prompting additional response by other nearby fire departments, he said.

The fire was contained within 15 or 20 minutes, he said.

The wind was blowing billows of smoke toward nearby buildings and fire officials decided to evacuate all workers from those buildings, Ginty said. Workers were allowed to return to work about an hour later, and operations have continued normally since then, he said.

As of Sunday afternoon, Ginty said, the plane had not been moved from the site of the fire, and no cargo had been removed. In a statement, DHL representatives said the status of the cargo was unknown and that the shipping company will update its customers on the status of their packages as more details become available.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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