So there I am, minding my own business, studiously avoiding conversation with my seat mate, sipping my tomato juice with ice, when suddenly there’s a pop and a bright red flash. I know its behind me, but it seems like its everywhere – for an instant the whole cabin is red. I turned to look and see the flight attendant stomping on a flame bouncing around the ground. Then the smell of smoke and burning plastic filled the cabin. Other than the initial pop, most of this transpires without noise.
And as fast as it happened, it was over. The fire flashed out mostly on its own, but what was left was successfully smothered by the flight attendant’s shoe. The passenger next to her looked only stunned.
A dead-heading staff member sitting in front of me jumped up to help, while Mary, our flight’s cabin crew, moved to the front of the plane to talk to the captain. A few moments later, I could feel the engines slow and the altitude begin decreasing. No one said it yet, but clearly this was being considered an emergency.
Sure enough, after about 5 minutes, while Mary cleaned up the remains of whatever had caught fire and helped the stunned passenger with his burns, the captain came on the intercom and told us that he’d filed an emergency request and we’d been cleared to land in Traverse City, Michigan where emergency crews would be waiting.
Emergency crews? For this? You’d better believe it…
As we taxied to a landing into an airport that apparently had no other planes at it, 3 red fire trucks, and 2 green hazmat trucks (complete with silver-suited personnel!) raced to meet us. A helicopter circled around our plane, and 3 police cars pulled up, in formation, next to our gate. I could see people running toward the plane as the engines spun down, and seconds later the cabin door opened, and an EMT with a defibrillator climbed on board.
Seated near the front of the plane, I heard bits and pieces of conversation between the captain, flight attendant, and emergency crew. A gentleman was wearing a “personal air purifier” – an ionizing device, worn around the neck, powered by a small lithium ion battery. Various theories were discussed about what caused it to ignite, but whatever it was, the battery was the culprit. Search YouTube and you’ll see exactly how they burn. An intense, brief pop of an explosion, coupled with significant heat and flame, followed by a quickly fizzling burn. The guy suffered a nickle-sized 2nd degree burn on his chest, where the device was hanging, and smoke and minor burns covered his hands from when he ripped it off his person and threw it on the floor. A quick thinking Mary had actually doused the flame with the water she was handing out to passengers, then told the captain that an oxygen source was on fire.
An oxygen source on fire on a plane would actually be a significant issue, but this wasn’t plane equipment. Nonetheless, once the “emergency” was resolved, a confident looking plainclothes gentleman, with an air of authority, came on board and pulled the crew off one by one for a chat. I was heading to the restroom when he appeared behind me and began talking to the injured passenger. I turned in time to see him pull out his badge and identify himself as FBI, asking the guy to “please come with me.”
Its been over an hour on the ground now. They kept us on the runway, free to move about the cabin, for quite some time while repair crews checked all the equipment in the vicinity of the fire, then de-planed us into quarantine for a security sweep. We haven’t seen the passenger who’s device caught fire since the FBI escorted him away.
I’m sure they’re just being cautious. The poor guy didn’t look like a terrorist, and if he is, he really only managed to terrify himself. The rest of the passengers are taking it all in stride while we wait in Traverse City’s cute little airport. The nice folks at the Gold Medallion help line have secured me a seat on multiple connecting flights leaving from MSP later in the day, so assuming our “15 minute” security sweep (that’s been going for at least 30 so far) finishes up, I’ll make it to my destination today.
The guy with the personal air purifier? Probably isn’t feeling quite so confident :-p