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Another Fuel Tank Leaking, But Fears of Rupture Ease In Airport Inferno

November 26, 1990

DENVER (AP) _ A blaze feeding off more than 1.6 million gallons of jet fuel burned unchecked at Stapleton International Airport today but appeared to diminish in intensity as two of three ruptured tanks burned themselves out.

Fears that a fourth tank, which had sprung a leak and was buckling, might rupture eased by late morning.

″Things are going real, real good. The intensity has dropped dramatically,″ said Fire Department spokesman Nick Nuanes, adding that firefighters were moving closer to the tanks as the intensity tapered off.

Flight delays caused by a fuel shortage wrenched thousands of travelers hurring home from their Thanksgiving visits Sunday, but replacement fuel was being trucked in today to make up for the fuel lost in the blaze.

The blaze erupted Sunday morning and engulfed two tanks containing 400,000 gallons of fuel each. It exploded from huge to gigantic later that night when an 800,000-gallon tank became overheated, ruptured and ignited.

The two smaller tanks largely burned themselves out today, but the 800,000- gallon tank continued to burn. Fire officials said the tank contained enough fuel to burn until about midday Wednesday.

A fourth tank containing 350,000 gallons of fuel was leaking fuel from the bottom and the fuel was erupting into flames, but the tank was not expected to rupture as authorities had feared earlier. In all, the tank farm contains 12 tanks.

Firefighters initially said Sunday that another 800,000-gallon tank also had ignited, but it turned out that that fire was at a holding pond where fuel had gathered behind the burning 400,000-gallon tanks. Firefighters kept fire hoses trained on that 800,000-gallon tank, hoping to keep it cooled so it would not ignite.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving traditionally is Stapleton’s busiest day of the year. The tanks had been filled Saturday night in anticipation of heavy holiday air traffic, officials said.

The fire caused flight delays, because of refueling difficulties, and traffic jams. Stapleton is the nation’s fourth-busiest airport in terms of passenger volume.

″You know, I’m really hassled,″ said actress Goldie Hawn, whose Sunday afternoon flight to Los Angeles was canceled. She and actor Kurt Russell had been skiing in Aspen.

The fire continued to burn fiercely and unchecked this morning. Firefighters monitored the blaze’s progress and kept fire hoses trained on the second 800,000-gallon tank, but did not plan an offensive to extinguish the fire.

The blaze, which cast a haze over Denver this morning and occasionally caused visibility problems on nearby Interstate 70, could burn for days.

″This was bad and it’s gotten worse, and we just have to stay with it until it does what it’s going to do,″ Denver Aviation Director George Doughty said. ″Right now, I think it’s a serious problem, but I don’t think it is endangering anything other than the fuel farm.″

The fire burned well north of the Stapleton terminal, where air traffic continued. There are no homes or businesses anywhere near the site.

There are 12 tanks holding about 12.5 million gallons of fuel in the storage area. The tanks are designed to rupture, not explode, when they get overheated.

The fire caused long flight delays Sunday for United Airlines, which depended almost exclusively on the tank farm for its jet fuel.

″This is a big problem,″ said United spokeswoman Laura Winiarski. ″And it was a bad day to happen. This is one of our busiest travel days of the year.″

She said all of United’s 186 flights into and out of Denver were delayed by the fire, with some of the delays four hours or longer. She said 24,000 passengers in Denver were affected, and thousands of others also were delayed as flights into and out of Denver, a major United hub, backed up.

But today, United said its aircraft were being fueled by tanker trucks from Conoco, predicting that the airline would return to a normal flight schedule. Spokesman Joe Hopkins said flights arriving at Stapleton were carrying extra fuel, further reducing the problem of refueling.

Firemen worked 30-minute shifts before having to take breaks from the work near flames reaching 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

″It’s real debilitating,″ said firefighter Jim Hawkins. ″It’s like being in a sauna for too long. You feel like you have spaghetti for legs.″

Five firefighters were treated at Denver General Hospital for dehydration and heat exhaustion and two others were treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, but the fire caused no serious injuries.

Stapleton spokesman Richard Boulware said jet fuel costs about $1.40 a gallon, meaning the fuel being consumed by fire is worth about $2.2 million.

-DS-11-26-90 1339EST

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