Jacksonville hazmat firefighter reveals how to minimize battery fire risk

Spirit Airlines flight had to make emergency landing at Jacksonville International Airport due to battery fire in overhead bin

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was a scary scenario for travelers on board a Spirit Airlines flight on Wednesday as crew members and passengers used fire extinguishers to put out a small fire in an overhead bin.

The flight was heading from Dallas to Orlando at the time and had to make an emergency landing at Jacksonville International Airport.

Passenger Rocco Chierichella kept the fire from getting any worse but burned his hand in the process.

“I’m a retired New York City fireman, and I guess it’s just instinct,” Chierichella said. “It was baggage overhead, and smoke was billowing out of it.”

Jacksonville firefighters got on and finished the job after the plane landed.

“It could have been really bad,” Chierichella said.

In total, 10 people were taken to a hospital.

Firefighters blame a lithium-ion battery for sending smoke into the cockpit. The problem traces back to a portable external battery with a USB cable. News4JAX learned that cable was attached to a vape pen, so it was actively charging that vape, and that’s when something went very wrong.

“These batteries, they can produce very volatile organic chemicals — hydrogen fluoride, a very, very bad substance that you do not want to inhale,” said Engineer Shawn Fallon, who is on the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department hazmat team.

Fallon is an expert on battery fires, which he says are happening more often — electric bikes, scooters and cars all have fire risk. He says a little battery cell called 18650 can produce up to 8 liters of gas.

News4JAX asked Fallon how people who are traveling can minimize the risk of what happened Wednesday.

“Well, my first suggestion would be: do not charge your device in-flight because that charger, we all know when we start to charge our phone, it starts to get a little hot,” he said.

He says defective and cheap knockoff batteries from overseas are a recipe for disaster.

“So I’ll say this: You get what you pay for,” he said. “So what you need to be aware of is there’s a lot of counterfeit or fake batteries out there.”

And, when you’re at home, he recommends unplugging your devices and not leaving them charging unattended.

News4JAX checked with Consumer Reports, whose experts say to keep batteries in your carry-on, not checked luggage. That way, any problems can be addressed early on.

Experts also suggest taping the ends of any battery terminals, so they don’t come in contact with metals or anything that could cause them to start a fire.

Spirit Airlines issued a statement saying, in part, “We thank our crew and Guests for their quick actions to ensure the safety of everyone onboard, and we thank first responders for meeting the aircraft.”

The Federal Aviation Administration reports eight onboard fires caused by fires in 2022 alone and 357 incidents since 2006.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.