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Battery fire in cabin injures 7 and prompts flight's return to Southern California

NBC News 2/7/2023 Andrew Blankstein and Dennis Romero and Jay Blackman and Austin Mullen

A lithium-ion battery fire in the cabin of a cross-country flight prompted its return to California, where four on the aircraft were hospitalized, authorities said.

The United Airlines flight from San Diego International Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport on Tuesday morning was in the air for a matter of seconds when the emergency erupted in its cabin, according to officials and data from flight tracking site FlightAware.

Seven people reported injuries, and four of them were taken to a UC San Diego's trauma facility, the San Diego Fire Department said.

Emergency responders work near a United Airlines plane after it landed due to a fire, in San Diego, on Tuesday. (KNSD) © Provided by NBC News Emergency responders work near a United Airlines plane after it landed due to a fire, in San Diego, on Tuesday. (KNSD)

The hospitalized patients were treated for smoke inhalation, UC San Diego Health said in a statement.

United Airlines indicated in a statement that all or nearly all of those people hospitalized are crew members who might have put themselves in harm’s way to address the fire. The employees were hospitalized as a precaution, it said.

Three others who were injured refused hospitalization despite the advice of first responders, fire officials said. At least two of those people were passengers, according to United.

The airline said the battery pack belonged to a customer. It's crew members "acted quickly to contain the device," United said. The fire department also credited crew members with preventing the fire's spread to the plane itself.

"We thank our crew for their quick actions in prioritizing the safety of everyone on board the aircraft," United said.

One of the tools employed in the fight was a fire bag, used to keep flames from spreading, fire officials said.

The aircraft, a Boeing 737, landed safety about 7:30 a.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which was investigating the incident alongside the National Transportation Safety Board. The number of passengers on board was not available.

Lithium-ion batteries commonly used in electronics devices and electric vehicles can rapidly produce flame-spreading heat. When they erupt, which is increasingly the case, the fires have proven resistant to traditional firefighting techniques.

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