Colorado Springs Airport Reopens Terminal One Day After Three-Alarm Fire

Colorado Springs Airport (COS)
Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

Shortly before 11:00 p.m. on April 16, emergency 911 operators received a call about smoke and flames emanating from the roof of the terminal at Colorado Springs Airport (COS). Within minutes, the airport had a three-alarm fire on its hands.

Director of Aviation Greg Phillips, who was at a professional conference, flew back immediately and was at the scene the next day. “At 22:51 the fire department received a 911 call from the parking lot toll plaza,” he explains. “About a minute later, one of our staff who was outside the terminal building noticed the fire and notified our Communications Center. A Communications Center staff person also called 911, but at that point the fire trucks were already on the way. In fact, the fire trucks were on the scene by 22:54.” 

Video images from that evening show what appears to be a whiff of smoke around 8:05 p.m. “There’s no way you could detect that with the eye, but the cameras picked it up,” adds Phillips. “Then around 10:30, the video shows a flame—very small at first, which is why it took around 20 minutes before anyone saw it.” 


Event: Three-alarm Terminal Fire

Location: Colorado Springs (CO) Airport

Date: April 16, 2018

Damage Estimate: $5.6 million

Cleanup & Restoration: ServPro

Air Quality Testing: Integrity Air Quality

General Contractor: Bryan Construction

Construction Management: RS&H

Demolition & Removal: Iron Mountain   

Structural Engineer: MGA Engineers  

Engineering Consultants: Bridgers & Paxton Engineers; Van Sant Group 

Architecture: DWL Architects; HB&A

Construction Consultant: MKA

Interior Design: Senger Design Group

Interior Construction: Rocky Mountain Interior Construction 

Electric: Berwick Electric

Mechanical Contractor: PLS Mechanical

Roof: Douglas Roofing 

Information Technology: FM Global 

Environmental Inspection: NES Environmental

Fire Alarms: Western States Fire Protection 

Noteworthy Details: Airport reopened the next day; city council helped expedite recovery by passing emergency ordinance that allowed officials to spend up to $5 million of airport funds on cleanup efforts

The fire broke out on the second-story roof, where renovation work was being performed next to the third-story conference room. It was a windy evening and workers had left the job at around 4:30 p.m., explains Phillips. The third floor, which does not cover the entire terminal footprint, contains a conference room and administrative offices, but no public spaces.

Quick Response

In addition to three Colorado Springs Fire Departments, emergency personnel from Peterson Air Force Base also arrived quickly on the scene. [The base provides airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services for the airport in lieu of rent.] In all, more than 60 firefighters battled the blaze. 

Local law enforcement ordered immediate evacuation of the terminal, recalls Assistant Director of Operations and Maintenance Brett Miller, who was on the scene with Assistant Director of Business and Finance Troy Stover shortly after the initial 911 call was received. The Communication Center issued an all-call page throughout the terminal building to begin the evacuation.

According to local media, firefighters could see flames shooting from the roof before they reached the airport. “We set up our aerial ladder and attacked the fire from the outside,” said Colorado Springs Fire Department Lt. Doug Pape. “Then we sent crews to the inside to make sure we didn’t have any fire inside of the building.”

The third floor location presented extra challenges. “We had to do relay pumping to aerial operations,” Pape explained to KKTV. “We [had] water supply, but there wasn’t any right in front of us like there would be for a house fire; so we had to have a fairly long lay-in. That delayed a little bit, the operations of getting water to the fire.”

Miller estimates there were 200 to 300 people in the building when the fire occurred, including a holdroom full of people waiting for an inbound Frontier flight that had just arrived. All concessions were open in both sterile and public areas of the terminal. 

Further complicating matters, three aircraft landed around the same time the fire was reported. Two were directed to the fixed base operator on the west side of the airport, and passengers deplaned there. The third held passengers onboard, waiting in the general vicinity of the terminal.

“Pat your head and rub your tummy—we had everything happening at the same time,” Phillips quips. “The last thing we wanted was to have a whole lot of passengers running around on the tarmac. Airport staff did a great job focusing on priorities: the safety of the people in the terminal, getting them out, and attacking the fire.”

On the secure side of the airport, a police officer started at the TSA checkpoint and walked the concourse, directing everyone toward gate 12, where they exited the building onto the tarmac, the farthest point from the fire. In the public areas, including concessions, ticketing, baggage and car rental, an officer and operations staff directed people out the front door of the terminal.

While the threat of terrorist activity is always a concern for airport officials, Miller and Stover both suspected the roofing work as a more likely catalyst after they learned where the fire originated. Their inclination was confirmed in July, when local police officially ruled the fire an accident associated with the application of roofing tar and materials with a torch. The district attorney reviewed the investigations and no criminal charges were expected. 

Emergency responders extinguished the active fire on the roof in approximately 45 minutes and then focused on determining whether it had infiltrated concealed areas of the ceiling. Firefighters spent an additional three to four hours using infrared heat guns to search for possible hot spots in the ceiling, notes Stover.

“To make sure that we were completely out on such a large structure, we took our time making sure we had no re-ignition,” Pape explains.  

At 4:30 a.m., fire officials gave the all-clear and allowed COS management to assume control of the building. Airport officials and staff immediately began assessing damage and devised an action plan to get the terminal up and running so commercial flight activity could resume as soon as possible. 

Emergency general aviation and military traffic continued throughout the event without interruption.

Pulling Together 

Making sure the building was structurally sound and the air quality safe were the first orders of business. Telephone calls to contractors began around 4 a.m., and several crews were at the airport three hours later, waiting for the structural engineer and industrial air quality hygienist to give the thumbs up for workers to enter the building. 

“We did not allow anyone into the building other than airport staff and contractors because the ceiling tile debris made it a hazardous hardhat area,” says Stover. “Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers authorized me to do what we needed to do to get the airport operational as quickly as possible. Our contractors started work immediately without contracts or negotiated fees. We figured we would just have to follow up later on those issues.”

ServPro, a reclamation contractor, began vacuuming up water, ripping out carpet and removing wet drywall and ceiling tiles. The fire had touched off the conference room sprinkler system, which ran water through a 1.5-inch line for four hours. While the fire itself damaged a portion of the roof and conference room, the sprinklers left several inches of water throughout the third-floor offices. The water also made its way down to the second floor, where it drenched United Airlines’ offices, ticket counters and baggage belt system, rendering them unusable. The terminal’s main electrical switchgear area also took on a lot of water. But after it was removed, an electrical contractor assessed the area and deemed it operationally safe.

Contractors immediately set to work erecting temporary walls to prevent the public from entering damaged areas. Airport staff relocated United’s ticket counters, and information technology personnel rerouted cabling and wiring for the airline’s communications system. COS employees also developed signage to direct the public when the terminal reopened. ServPro laid temporary carpet over the concrete floor where soaked carpeting had been ripped out.

Throughout the day, COS management held briefings in the airport’s operations and maintenance building to keep airline, rental car and concessions tenants informed about what was being done and when the terminal would reopen.

At 3:30 p.m., the mayor and fire chief held a press conference to inform the public that the terminal would be fully functional and all airlines operating at full capacity by 3:30 the following morning. It had been a sleepless night and following day, but the terminal reopened just 23 hours after airport management resumed control of the building.

“We would not have been able to get up and running so quickly without the support of our staff and community,” Miller reflects. “And the leadership of our mayor and contracting community,” Stover quickly adds. “Those relationships—together with the airport staff that showed up at two in the morning and worked 24 hours straight to make sure the airport could reopen—it wouldn’t have happened without those people.”

Moving Forward

While COS officials expect the airport’s insurance to cover damages and repairs, they did not have to wait for investigation results before paying contractors. To get things moving more quickly, the Colorado Springs City Council passed an emergency ordinance allowing the airport to spend up to $5 million on fire recovery.

“The $5 million comes from money we have in our capital improvement funds,” Phillips clarifies. “We just needed the authorization to spend it. It does not come from public tax funds.”

Interestingly, COS had recently hired HB&A Architects to develop a terminal modernization plan. With money in the budget for upgrades and modifications, the airport is carefully tracking funding sources as recovery proceeds.

“Virtually everything touched by water has to be cleaned or removed,” Phillips remarks. “The water flowed through ceiling tiles, ducts and between walls. Now you have mold and mildew issues. The carpeting has been ripped out and the entire drop ceiling on a large portion of the first floor torn down. Now we have the opportunity to think about what we want to do different. These are the kinds of decisions we are making over a six- to 12-month period rather than a two-year period.

“The most important thing is that nobody was hurt,” Phillips stresses.

The airport anticipates finishing repairs to the second and third floors by mid-November. Repairs to the baggage claim area are scheduled to begin early next year. 

Emergency Operations

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