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Miami Fire Chief Discusses Airport Evacuation

Aired August 21, 2002 - 11:20   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We want to return our coverage now to this breaking story: the evacuation of one of nine passenger terminals at Miami International Airport, reports of at least eight people who are being treated for some respiratory problems: sneezing, coughing, irritation of the eyes.
On the telephone with us now, to perhaps clear up what might be the source of this irritation involving some of those people down there is Chief Louie Fernandez of the Miami-Dade Fire Department. He's on the telephone with us now.

Chief, what is the source of the irritation that eight people are experiencing?

LOUIE FERNANDEZ, MIAMI-DADE FIRE CHIEF: That is the big question. And that's what drives emergency responders crazy at the onset of incidents like these. It could be a whole host of chemicals, household chemicals, that may have combined inside the baggage. We just don't know. When respondsers -- especially since September 11 -- happened across these type of calls, we have to take worst-case scenario, and the worst-case scenario for us is to isolate the area; get those people that were affected decontaminated, which could mean washing them off, taking their clothes; removing them from the area, and medically treating them.

We just don't know, and since we don't know have to take the worst-case scenario.

WHITFIELD: And are decontaminating the people and treating them right there on the scene?

FERNANDEZ: Right. We find that to be the best way. When we do that, when we decontaminate right there on the scene, it prevents any chemicals or any substances from being transferred over to the receiving hospital. Now, if that was not the case, then you could have two locations that could become contaminated. So we treat right there on the scene as quickly as possible. We have about 50 firefighters on the scene literally just doing that right now.

WHITFIELD: We are hearing two different theories that could have taken place here. One, a substance, a powdery substance, may have passed through or somewhere near the security checkpoint and affected people. Another theory is that a chemical was spilled and got into the air conditioning or air duct system. Which one of those two theories do you prefer, or what is the latest story?

FERNANDEZ: Actually, those are both theories that we are working off of right now. We have people investigating both of those theories. We have to. We have to look at everything as quickly as possible. Throughout the year, though, on different instances that sometimes don't get published, we respond to calls at major shopping centers where these chemicals get into the AC system and several people suffer from the same type of symptoms.

So it possibly could be that. But still, since we do not know, we have to look at everything as quickly as possible.

WHITFIELD: So even though Terminal 2, Concourse B has been evacuated. We are seeing now in these live pictures there that it appears as though some traffic is inching through, going around perhaps the fire engines, the HAZMAT engines. So the airport is still operating, or at least the other terminals people are still able to fly in and out of.

FERNANDEZ: We feel comfortable that if the contaminant is airborne, our instruments would have picked it up. In addition to that, because of the separate AC units working in the different areas, we feel comfortable that the other areas -- obviously with thousands of people there -- have to continue to move.

The traffic that you are seeing outside by the fire trucks are because if the chemical was airborne inside, it would be pretty much kept inside the concourse -- if it was. Therefore, people are still moving around. We have to move the area as quickly as possible. As you well know, it is a very busy airport, with a lot of the people there on a daily basis.

WHITFIELD: And it is a very sizable airport as well. It is a 9- passenger concourses there.

What area have you all cordoned off? Is it near the security checkpoint, is it the area where the ticket agents are, is it beyond that? Is there a way that you can kind of paint a picture for us?

FERNANDEZ: The ticket agents are closer to the fire trucks that you are watching on your images right now. And as you progress deeper into the airport facility, you then get to an area of escalators with security checkpoints. That area and pretty much back in any other area around that air conditioned systems is where we have closed off right now. And again, it's worst-case scenario. We need to be sure -- the incident is still developing so quickly that we have to canvass everything, close off everything in that immediate area, just to be sure.

WHITFIELD: Chief Louie Fernandez of the Miami-Dade Fire Department, thank you very much for joining us on the telephone.




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