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Airport explosion still under investigation

Wings employee who suffered minor injuries now back at work

Posted: April 16, 2014 - 1:42pm  |  Updated: April 17, 2014 - 12:11am

Fire officials and Wings of Alaska are investigating the cause of a small explosion Sunday at Juneau International Airport that injured an airline employee.

The employee was refilling a heated de-icing machine with ethylene glycol about 6:05 a.m. Sunday when large flames shot out of the top of the machine, according to Capital City Fire and Rescue Captain Chad Cameron.

Wings of Alaska said the man’s beard was singed and he sustained “superficial sunburn” burns but escaped serious injury. He was taken to the hospital as a precaution to ensure he didn’t inhale smoke and his eyes weren’t injured.

Wings of Alaska Regional Manager Scott Rinkenberger on Wednesday confirmed that the employee, whose name was not given, was released from the hospital shortly after the incident and was able to return to work the next day.

CCFR is investigating the cause of the explosion. Cameron speculated that it may have been related to the vapors in the heated container. He said the “flash” of flames was instantaneous and self-extinguished by the time firefighters arrived on scene.

CCFR estimated that about two to three gallons of ethylene glycol exploded in the area. The spill was contained and cleaned up. The incident took place on the airport’s back ramp, under the eaves of the building. Equipment, such as towing vehicles and empty dog kennels, is kept in the area for storage, airport manager Patricia deLaBruere said.

deLaBruere said the machine that exploded is a miniature version of the bigger one used to de-ice aircraft on the tarmac. The bigger machine is towed around in the back of a truck, while the smaller one is toted in a small cart, she said.

deLaBruere said she had never heard of a de-icing machine igniting before.

“There’s always a first time for everything,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday.

She equated the explosion in this case to a radiator cap shooting off when it is hot. The incident did not affect operations at the airport or cause any delays on Sunday, she said.

Similarly, Wings of Alaska said the company is “at a loss” about why the explosion occurred. Rinkenberger said the de-icing agent is not flammable, except in specific conditions that did not exist in this case. He said the company’s safety personnel are investigating the matter alongside the fire department.

Rinkenberger said Wings is readdressing its policy on how to refill the de-icing machine to prevent such an explosion from happening again. He said employees will now be required to de-energize the heating element of the de-icing cart and leave the cap open for 10 minutes to allow for ventilation before it can be refilled.

Rinkenberger added that CCFR arrived on scene within minutes, but before they did, people already on scene rushed to help the man. Those who provided that initial assistance included Alaska Airlines ramp personnel and Alaska Seaplanes employees.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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