AUBURN — Firefighters responding to the Lufthansa hangar at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport on Monday morning walked into a wall of foam over their heads after a malfunction in the fire suppression system filled the building with foam and briefly trapped four people inside.
“Apparently, they were working on the system when there was an error,” Fire Chief Geoff Low said. “When it discharged, it filled the entire hangar. We did have some initial reports of some people that were lost inside. We were able to locate them — they were up on an upper level, so they were able to actually stay out of the product and we were able to get them down.”
A few people were covered in foam and some inhaled it. Two were taken to the hospital, Low said.
“Safety is always of the utmost importance to us and so we take this quite seriously,” Lufthansa spokesman Tal Muscal said. “Thankfully no serious injuries were reported.”
The call initially came in around 9 a.m. Don Stevens, part of an Auburn Water and Sewer District crew doing routine work to a sewer pump station by the airport fence, said first he heard what sounded like a generator firing up.
“We look over and (foam) just starts pouring out all the doors, all the way around,” Stevens said. “We all took a five-minute break to watch.”
At one point, a truck driving through the foam appeared to hit the building. Foam poured onto the lawn around the hangar and onto cars in the parking lot, looking like out-of-season snowbanks.
“We thought it was going to take out the port-a-potties (right outside the hangar),” he said.”It was going right by it.”
The Department of Environmental Protection and the local water district have been alerted, Low said.
The high-expansion foam is made by Ansul.
“There’s a fair amount of air in it, it’s relatively easy to move through it, but it will engulf a person if it’s up over their head,” Low said. “When we talked to the reps at Ansul, they conveyed that it’s essentially a dish detergent and basically (once someone comes in contact with it), it’s a simple flushing of the person, get them a shower and get them cleaned up.”
He estimated foam reached 20 to 25 feet high inside the hangar. Lufthansa Technik has been restoring a Lockheed Super Star Constellation aircraft at the site and Low said one plane was inside the building being repaired when the system went off.
Low anticipated damages between the foam and water from the sprinklers that followed.
Muscal said he didn’t have any knowledge of damage to the Super Star Constellation being restored there.
Eyewitness Cassie Gagnon, who lives in Lewiston, was hired last week by a staffing agency for a three- to four-week job to help move material from one hangar to another.
She was on her way back to the Constellation and “people were running out of the hangar and I could see a massive wall of foam coming out.”
She said she had no idea what was going on, but that the people around her were more shocked and anxious than scared.
“We all stood outside and we waited” for instructions on decontamination, Gagnon said, and after about 45 minutes, she and others were cleared to leave the property.
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They did not return to work Monday.
Firefighters cleared the airport at 12:30 p.m. when the company got the OK from DEP to go back in and start clearing foam from the building, according to a fire captain.