Investigators said yesterday that a heavy rainstorm accompanied by lightning and strong winds was a factor that caused an Air France jet to skid off a Toronto runway and burst into flames, prompting 309 passengers and crew to slide down escape chutes.
The plane skidded off the runway at Pearson International Airport after landing at about 4 PM Tuesday in a pounding storm.
Brian Lackey, vice president of operations for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said the Airbus A340 had enough fuel to divert to Montreal or another airport where the weather was better, but "that's the pilot's decision."
"It was definitely an extreme storm, something we haven't seen in a long time," Lackey said. "We're very, very grateful that the situation turned out as well as it did."
Hundreds make miracle escape in Canada jet crash
More than 300 people made a miracle escape after an Air France jet that witnesses said may have been hit by lightning skidded off a rainy Toronto runway, crashed into a ravine and burst into flames.
Panicked and screaming, passengers leapt down escape chutes before fire engulfed the demolished Airbus A-340, which had encountered heavy storms trying to land at Pearson Airport on Tuesday.
"It's a miracle for almost 300 people, more than 300 people, to come out of the plane before ... it went on fire," Canadian Transport Minister Jean Lapierre said.
Officials reported only 43 minor injuries from the 297 passengers and 12 crew on Flight 358 from Paris. The broken wreckage of the plane ended up in a ravine 200 meters off the runway.
Witnesses said they saw fireballs coming from the debris after the crash, and passengers told how they saw lightning flashes in the sky around them as the jet came in to land.
"It was raining hard…. When we touched down a lot of people clapped their hands, but it was a little premature," said Gilles Medioni, a reporter for France's Express weekly who was on board.
"The pilot tried to put the brakes on but he never made it. Then the plane began to lurch and bump. People began to scream and sense the plane was about to crash," Medioni said.
"Everything was happening very quickly," Medioni said. "People got up from their seats. There was a smell of smoke, of kerosene and people looked for the emergency exits."
Another passenger, Olivier Dubois, told how passengers rushed to exit doors and jumped down escape chutes, with the plane already on fire.
"People were screaming and panicking... Everybody was jumping as fast as possible and running everywhere. Because the fear was that the plane would blow up at one point," he said.
Air France and emergency service officials said everyone had come out alive. Forty-three people were taken to area hospitals with minor injuries, Toronto Airport Authority official Steve Shaw told reporters.
Passengers told how the power on the jet went out about one minute before the landing and how they believed it was hit by lightning.
"I saw lightning," said Roel Bramar. "Maybe the plane had already been hit by lightning ... just as we landed, the lights turned off. And that's unusual. So I'm sure that the bad weather was responsible."
Dubois said: "As soon as the plane stopped, they immediately opened the side of the plane where they couldn't see any flames, and then they told us to jump. And we all began jumping and running."
"We were running really fast…. It was really, really scary."
Fire crews battled thick flames and black smoke for more than an hour after the crash.
In Paris, a French transport ministry spokesman said an inquiry with Canadian authorities would open yesterday local time.
Air France Chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta yesterday praised the crew for saving hundreds of lives.
"I want to pay homage to the crew," Spinetta said at a news conference at Air France headquarters. "I don't know if we should speak of a miracle ... but above all the professionalism of the crew."
The four-engined Airbus jet has an excellent safety record. It was the first major accident involving an A-340, which has been in service since 1993.
Black boxes of crashed plane recovered
Both black box recorders have been recovered from the Air France flight, an official said yesterday.
"I can confirm that the black boxes have been recovered," Steve Shaw, spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority that manages Canada's busiest airport, said at a news conference.
The black boxes were to be sent to Ottawa and any communication between the pilots and the control tower or other recorded information was to be downloaded at a lab in Ottawa.
A team of between 10 and 15 investigators met all night as they mapped out a plan for examining every detail of how the A340 managed to overshoot a runway by 200 meters Tuesday afternoon.
The passenger jet, which landed in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, was torn into three pieces after the crash. Fortunately all 309 on aboard survived the most serious accident at Pearson since 1978, only 43 people were slightly injured.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency August 4, 2005)