First Air sues over 2001 hangar fire

City of Iqaluit defends firefighter’s response



First Air, the Arctic’s largest airline, has launched a lawsuit against Baffin Building Systems, the City of Iqaluit, the Government of Nunavut, the Government of the Northwest Territories, and the Government of Canada, claiming financial compensation for a fire that destroyed a First Air maintenance hangar in Nunavut’s capital three years ago.

First Air lost the entire hangar on May 27, 2001, when it was consumed by a fire. The 12,000-square-foot building at Iqaluit’s airport was the airline’s only maintenance hangar in Nunavut.

Their statement of claim does not specify how much money First Air would seek in damages if its allegations are proven to be true.

In its lawsuit, First Air accuses one of Iqaluit’s largest contractors, BBS, of improperly installing a drain beneath the hangar, which the airline says contributed to the fire.

First Air alleges that BBS designed and installed a drain to collect any flammable liquids that spilled during airplane maintenance seven years ago when the hangar was built.

In its statement of defence, BBS confirms it installed the controversial drain, but said another company designed it and that they did the work according to First Air’s instructions.

The airline also alleges that BBS failed to follow fire and building codes, partly by wrapping flammable insulation around an electronic device called a heat-trace system, the same type of building defect blamed for starting a fire that consumed Joamie School last year.

In their statement of defence, filed in April this year, BBS rejects all of First Air’s claims.

BBS said in its defence that the airline is to blame because they failed to control where employees were throwing cigarette butts, which BBS says may have started the massive fire.

According to BBS, First Air knew its employees were throwing cigarette butts down a drainpipe that lead to an area underneath the floor where the airline said the fire originated.

BBS said First Air staff had even put out a fire with a bucket of water in the area before the larger fire occurred. First Air knew or ought to have known this would cause a fire, the BBS defence statement says.

BBS claims that if a judge ever finds there was negligence that caused the fire that burned down the hangar, the blame lies either with First Air, or the governments that the airline is suing.

The City of Iqaluit’s statement of defence denies any wrong-doing or negligence in the fire, and says that if a judge finds any government owes First Air for their losses, it should be the Government of Nunavut, which controls the airport land where the fire took place.

The City states that its firefighters are not obligated to put out fires on airport lands.

However, despite claiming the fire was outside its jurisdiction, the City goes on to defend its fire department’s abilities to battle a fire.

First Air accuses Iqaluit’s fire department of suffering a communication breakdown while their hangar burned down, and further claims that firefighters lacked enough water pressure to do their job.

Iqaluit’s counter-claim states that by the time the firefighters got to the scene of the fire, the hangar was “largely engulfed in flames and heavy thick black smoke was spewing from the structure.”

The statement of defence admits there were problems accessing water at the time, because there was no fire hydrant at the site, and the closest one was locked behind an airport gate. But even if their firefighters lacked enough water pressure, the City says it’s not responsible for putting out “such a large industrial structural fire on Airport lands.”

As for communication problems, Iqaluit’s lawyer writes that there were no problems, as Iqaluit firefighters spoke directly with airport firefighters by walkie-talkie or face-to-face.

The governments of Canada, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories also reject the airline’s claims.

Each government denies responsibility for any negligence that may have led to the installation of the problem drainpipe, and the subsequent fire.

In fact, in its statement of defence, the GNWT lists several reasons why First Air is to blame for its own loss. These include First Air’s alleged failure to supervise BBS’s installation of the controversial drain, and ensure that it met safety requirements.

The federal government, also named in the suit, responded to First Air’s claims, by saying they handed over the airport land to the GNWT two years before the fire occurred. Therefore, it said the federal government had nothing to do with ensuring the hangar’s drainage system was safe.

Fire Marshal Gerald Pickett has written a report on the causes of the fire, but has refused to release it, citing legal constraints.

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