NTSB obtains both flight recorders from Jamaica plane crash

An American Airlines flight from Miami with more than 150 aboard overshot a runway in Kingston and skidded to the edge of the Caribbean Sea, injuring more than 40 people, officials said.
Map locates Kingston, Jamaica where Flight 331 ran off the runway
By Sholnn Freeman and Martin Weil
Thursday, December 24, 2009

The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that it had taken possession of the flight data recorders from the American Airlines flight that overshot a runway in Kingston, Jamaica, Tuesday night, injuring dozens.

Investigators had been working Wednesday to retrieve a second recorder, which was expected to have captured the pilots' voices during the final leg of the flight. Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said both devices will be brought back to U.S. labs to be decoded.

U.S. air safety investigators traveled to Jamaica on Wednesday to help officials there determine how the jetliner "overshot the end of the runway while landing in heavy rain, crossed a road and stopped on a beach," the NTSB said.

The team included five NTSB aviation specialists as well as technical advisers from the Federal Aviation Administration, American Airlines, Boeing and GE Aircraft Engines. Holloway said Jamaica officials would lead the investigation.

American Airlines Flight 331 left Reagan National Airport at 3:37 p.m. Tuesday, stopped at Miami International, then headed into Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport about 10:22 p.m. According to the NTSB, the airplane, a Boeing 737-800, carried 154 passengers and six crew members. American Airlines said there were no fatalities.

Seven passengers remained hospitalized Wednesday with broken bones and other serious injuries, according to Tim Wagner, an American Airlines spokesman. About 80 people were treated at hospitals before being released, including members of the flight crew, officials said.

There was no immediate cause cited for the incident. Aviation safety analysts say crash investigators might focus on the weather, the condition of the runway and the decisions made by pilots and air traffic controllers. Investigators will also examine whether any mechanical failures on the plane contributed to the accident.

It "looks like there were several weather-related issues: very heavy rain, poor visibility and a tail wind," said Henry Margusity, a meteorologist at Accuweather.com.

Margusity said there could have been layers of water on the surface of the runway, causing the plane to hydroplane.

"It was almost like being on ice," he said. "The passengers were basically along for the ride."

Wagner said the jet's two engines separated, the tip of the left wing was broken off and the main landing gear collapsed. Pictures showed the fuselage broken in two places.

"The aircraft didn't get stopped," Wagner said. "We don't know why yet."

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