A FIRE killed at least 16 people in a terminal building at Dusseldorf airport in Germany yesterday. About 150 people were reported to have been injured, 60 of them seriously.
Many of the casualties were overcome by thick acrid smoke, through which rescue workers wearing breathing apparatus battled to find the victims of one of the worst disasters of its kind at a German airport.
A policeman and a child were among nine people who died from asphyxiation in the lift system.
All fire fighting units in Dusseldorf were sent to the airport, while fire engines and rescue teams also arrived from surrounding areas.
Police said the blaze probably broke out in a flower shop on the arrivals level of the airport. It was not immediately clear what caused the outbreak, but Mr Hans Jurgen Leineweber, a spokesman for Dusseldorf fire brigade, said. "It could have been caused by flying sparks from power tools."
One witness spoke of having seen sparks coming from a ventilation duct. The fire seemed to break out in a false ceiling and spread rapidly, sending the choking smoke through conduits and passageways.
The blaze spread rapidly through Terminal A which primarily serves domestic and international flights of the German airline, Lufthansa. Both the arrivals and departures section were filled with smoke, and the fire also worked its way down to the railway station underneath the terminal.
"Flames and choking fumes spread rapidly through pipes and corridors," said Mr Leineweber.
"Some of the victims had suffocated in the lifts. About 60 people were seriously injured with smoke poisoning, and countless people were slightly hurt."
He said that one possible reason for the high number of casualties was that people panicked when fire broke out and ignored instructions to use fire exits.
"It was a catastrophe. There was such a panic that people were falling over each other everywhere," said one passenger.
The airport was closed indefinitely, flights were redirected to Cologne airport and police sealed off roads to the airport.
"All the planes at the airport were carefully removed from the terminal area as soon as the fire broke out and parked in safe places," an airport spokeswoman said.
The German private television station RTL broadcast film showing rescue workers carrying bodies out of smoking airport buildings and medical staff trying to save the lives of the injured.
The city authorities of Dusseldorf set up a help telephone line to answer inquiries from families and friends of people who were at the airport or might have been there.