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Cause of Denver Runway Crash a Mystery
Firefighters Amazed All 115 People on Jet Survived; Voice Recorders Appear Intact

By Kristen Wyatt
Associated Press
Monday, December 22, 2008

DENVER, Dec. 21 -- Firefighters said Sunday that it was a miracle no one was killed when an airliner veered sharply off a runway during takeoff, burst into flames and nearly broke apart.

There was no official word on the possible cause of the crash of Continental Flight 1404 at Denver International Airport. Cockpit and voice recorders were recovered and appeared to be in good condition, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The weather was clear but cold when the plane attempted to take off for Houston about 6:20 p.m. Saturday. Winds at the airport were 31 mph, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.

"No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind" before Flight 1404 tried to lift off, Gregor said.

The entire right side of the Boeing 737-500 was burned in the accident, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats. Investigators said the plane's left engine was ripped away, along with all the landing gear.

A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, said Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport.

Davis, one of the firefighters who rushed to the scene, said the plane came to a rest about 200 yards from one of the airport's four fire stations. Passengers walked out of the ravine in 24-degree cold and crowded inside the station, he said.

The 110 passengers and five crew members left the plane on emergency slides, officials said.

Passenger Emily Pellegrini told the Denver Post that as the plane headed down the runway, "It was bumpy, then it was bumpier, then it wasn't bumpy."

Gabriel Trejos told KUSA-TV in Denver that the plane buckled toward its middle and that the seats felt as if they were closing in on him, his pregnant wife and his 13-month-old son, who was on his lap. His knees were bruised from hitting the seat in front of him.

Maria Trejos told KUSA that there was an explosion and that the right side of the plane, where they were sitting, was engulfed in flames. The family used an emergency exit and slid down the wing of the jet to the ground.

Injuries included broken bones, but NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said he did not know whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation. Two people initially listed in critical condition at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver were upgraded Sunday, one to serious condition and one to fair condition, spokeswoman Tonya Ewers said.

Many passengers from the flight arrived in Houston, its original destination, Sunday afternoon, some clearly injured, the Houston Chronicle reported online Sunday. One woman limped off the flight with red-rimmed eyes; another was in a wheelchair, wearing a neck brace, the newspaper reported. A young boy was taken by stretcher straight to an elevator.

The gate where relatives waited at George Bush Intercontinental Airport was blocked off from the rest of the terminal.

The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to have gotten airborne, Denver aviation manager Kim Day said.

Sumwalt said the damaged plane would remain for several days in the 40-foot-deep ravine where it landed. That runway will remain closed during the investigation, he said.

The ravine in which the plane came to rest sits between runways. Flat land is rare on the plains abutting the Rocky Mountains near Denver, and the airport was built on gently rolling country. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.

Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation. He declined to comment on whether Boeing had any indication of possible problems with the 737-500 jetliner.

Larry Kellner, Continental's chairman and chief executive, said his airline was doing all it could for the passengers, crew and their families.

"We will also do whatever we can to learn the cause of this accident so that we can prevent an occurrence at Continental or at any other airline," he said.

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