'Total Chaos' On Plane In Japan

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

TOKYO, Aug. 21 -- Passengers slid down escape chutes and sprinted away from a smoking Taiwanese airliner moments before it exploded in flames Monday near an airport terminal on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

A crew member of the Boeing 737-800, operated by Taiwan-based China Airlines, could be seen on video jumping from a cockpit window seconds after the explosion.

Despite what passengers described as 10 minutes of panic and terror inside the plane before they found the emergency slides, none of the 165 people aboard was killed or seriously injured, China Airlines said.

"When the smoke started, people were just pushing and shoving each other," an unidentified female Taiwanese passenger told reporters. "It was total chaos."

Officials said the explosion may have been caused by a fuel leak. China Airlines, which quickly grounded its fleet of 737-800 aircraft, has had four serious accidents in the past 13 years.

Carrying mostly vacationers to what has become a popular beach resort, Monday's flight from Taipei landed normally at the Naha Airport in Okinawa, passengers said.

"Everything was working according to normal procedure. There was nothing wrong during the flight," China Airlines spokesman Johnson Sun told reporters. He said the plane, with 157 passengers and a crew of eight, had just received its scheduled maintenance.

The pilot, Capt. Yu Chien-Kuo, 48, had been flying 737-800s for the airline for six years. He gave air traffic controllers no report suggesting anything was wrong as the plane came in to land, Japanese Transport Ministry official Akihiko Tamura told reporters. Nor did the pilot call in a problem as the plane stopped near the terminal to unload passengers.

As the jet parked, passengers said, the left engine began smoking, followed by the right one. A statement on the airline's Web site said the plane caught fire while taxiing.

Tamura said the fire started "when the left engine exploded a minute after the aircraft entered the parking spot." Another Japanese transportation official told reporters that initial reports from ground personnel said a fuel leak from the right engine could have led to the explosions.

Some passengers told reporters that they saw the danger before the aircraft crew. "The passengers saw the smoke first, and they began to yell and demand that the doors be opened," said a passenger who gave his surname as Tsang and identified himself as a guide for Taipei's Southeast Tours.

Video shot from the terminal building showed passengers sliding down emergency chutes and running from the smoking aircraft. It erupted in a ball of flames just as the last of the passengers had managed to get clear.

A passenger who gave only his surname, Chen, told reporters he started running the moment he slid off the plane.

"I ran so hard my sock tore," he said. "I think I got my life back."

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