Explosions near the runway: airport firefighters on the front line


« I was patrolling in my vehicle when I saw black smoke coming out of the roof. The column of smoke, very small at first, grew visibly larger. I grabbed my radio and sounded the alarm. » Milos Obradovic is head of the aviation authority group. It is he who warned the airport firefighters (SLIA) that a fire had broken out very close to the runway, on the roof of the future asylum centre, on Friday 20 May, at 17:00. Insulation work was ongoing on this site located on Chemin du Bois-Brûlé, on the edge of the airport perimeter.

Risky intervention

Immediately, two SLIA trucks, equipped with water tanks, were dispatched to the scene. Four firefighters were sent inside the building. « The objective was to repatriate potential workers. I remind you that our priority is to save lives! », explains Lionel Perret, deputy head of the fire section. His emotion is obvious. He directed the first operations that day. While his men were in the building, an explosion was heard. 

« My colleagues were exposed to danger so I gave the order to withdraw. I'm proud of them. »

Four more explosions followed, the origin of which was gas cylinders present on the site. The explosions could be heard over a great distance.

The strong wind pushed the black smoke in the direction of the approaching aircraft. At 17:30, the decision was made to stop all air traffic and no more aircraft movements were allowed to land.  

Faced with the scale of the fire, the SLIA immediately informed the central Fire and Rescue Service (SIS) which, as required by the procedure, took over the control of operations. Sirens could be heard throughout the city as reinforcements poured in.

Almost all the means of the SSLIA were mobilised, that is to say sixteen firefighters, with a substantial amount of hydraulic equipment. The cannon launchers were set in action. No more firefighters entered the building until the risk of explosion had been eliminated. 

Scattered metal fragments

Once the fire was under control, at approximately 18:00, it was essential to secure the area. The force of the explosions was such that fragments of metal and construction materials had been propelled tens of metres around the site. Six vehicles searched, for 35 minutes, the runway and taxiways to detect the presence of debris, FOD (Foreign Object Debris) in airport jargon. Regardless of their size, they pose an extremely significant risk to aircraft and personnel.  

Seven men also searched in line on foot, in the grassy areas near the runway. Christopher Rapin, specialised aviation authority agent, coordinated these search operations. A broken gas canister is found on a taxiway.

«You could say it's the FOD of the year, that's for sure!»

Traffic paralysis

The fire required the closure of air traffic for nearly two hours. Eleven scheduled flights and three private flights had to be diverted to other airports and 22 flights from Geneva were cancelled. 

An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the accident. Luckily, no injuries were reported. One man, in a state of shock, was taken care of by medical staff from the airport platform. 

This event once again resulted in perfect coordination between firefighters from the SLIA and the Fire and Rescue Service (SIS). A month earlier, these two entities had already joined forces to control the fire at the Meyrin climbing hall.