AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — A mistakenly flipped breaker switch apparently triggered the January fire that destroyed the Burger King restaurant on base.

Stars and Stripes received three pages of an Air Force safety investigation into the fire via the mail on Tuesday. Officials at the Air Force Safety Center, the releasing authority for the report, said the rest wouldn’t be released to the public.

But one of the three pages sent contains a “factual summary of circumstances.”

It states: “On 12 Jan 04, a (Civil Engineer Squadron) electrician closed an open circuit breaker in substation #140 triggering a power outage to several facilities located on Area 1 at 1325, to include Burger King. The Burger King exhaust fan stop extracting heat and smoke from the broiler grease extraction system and duct work.

“A Burger King employee shut off the gas to broiler unit. However, flames in the broiler continued and ignited the grease dripping from the hood filters above the boiler system. The fire spread throughout the duct system into the suspended ceiling.”

No injuries were reported in the fire, which occurred at the end of the lunch hour. But the stand-alone structure — valued at $1.1 million — was destroyed.

The remains eventually were carted away and a parking lot now sits on the site, with no evidence the restaurant — which opened in 1986 — ever existed. In the meantime, Area 1 has gained two new eating options — Subway sandwiches and Anthony’s Pizza. Both opened in a new mini-mall earlier this summer.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service already operates another Burger King restaurant on the flight line area and still is considering whether it will replace the restaurant it lost.

In interviews, base officials discussed the power outage shortly after the fire but didn’t connect it at the time to the start of the blaze.

They said the loss of electricity had thwarted efforts to put the fire out faster because pumps weren’t working. It took about four hours to extinguish. Another problem was a shortage of water pressure, meaning firefighters couldn’t use jets from more than one truck at a time to battle the flames. Both problems could be helped by the opening of a new water station — with backup generators — in Area 2 nearby. But that facility has yet to open.

Officials at Aviano said they couldn’t comment on the report, citing the authority of the safety center on the matter. The base also refused to identify the person involved in the incident or state whether judicial or administrative charges come into play.

In a cover letter included with the three pages released, Col. George Clark, staff judge advocate at the safety center, said Defense Department and Air Force instructions prohibit the public release of analysis, findings and recommendations from safety investigations.

The Italians also investigated the incident. But Stripes was told last month that the report wouldn’t be released until the local prosecutor determined if there were charges to file. And there was no timetable available on that process.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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