Survivors of the aircraft fire here yesterday, in which 54 persons died, today described a scene of panic in which passengers clawed and trampled each other in their rush to escape the inferno inside the plane.
Some said that more of the 137 passengers and crew aboard the British Airtours charter would have survived if their exit stampede had not blocked the aisle and doorways.
"It was so crazy in there," said Anna Findlay, one of 15 survivors still hospitalized here. "You looked after yourself with no thought for anyone else at all . . . .If we hadn't panicked, more people would have got out."
Airport officials and some survivors praised the courage and efficiency of the crew. Others, however, insisted that the panic began only after crucial seconds were lost as crew members and some passengers inexplicably shouted for all to remain in their seats even while many could see one wing and the rear part of the plane in flames. Two stewardesses were among the dead.
The sometimes conflicting stories of the survivors added to growing confusion and uncertainty surrounding the fire on the plane, which began when an engine of the Boeing 737 plane burst into flames as the aircraft was accelerating down the runway for takeoff en route to the Greek island of Corfu.
Thousands of British vacationers, due to depart by air on what is one of the year's busiest holiday weekends, called charter companies today to check widespread reports that all Boeing 737s of the type in the accident were being declared unsafe.
The reports were inaccurate, and tour operators reported few cancellations. But they reflected concern among British aviation and airline officials over reported previous problems with the Pratt & Whitney engine fitted on the 737s and other widely used aircraft.
Investigators said today that the engine fault that caused the Manchester crash was unrelated to seven earlier nonfatal incidents in which a part of the engine had torn loose and damaged aircraft. Investigators said it might be months before they could determine what had caused yesterday's disaster.
Roger Leonard, a Boeing air safety investigator who arrived here today, told reporters, "I can see nothing at this stage which would justify grounding 737s. They have a very good safety record."
Six British airlines, four of them charter companies, fly a total of 87 Boeing 737s. Nearly half of the British 737 fleet is operated by British Airways.
Officials from Pratt & Whitney and Boeing will assist in the investigation being conducted by the British Department of Transport. The shell of the plane, with the rear section where most of the dead were seated largely destroyed by the fire, has been hauled into a hangar off the runway.
In addition to examining the engine, the investigation will include examination of materials used in seat cushions and the placement of oxygen tanks to see if they possibly contributed to the swiftness with which the fire spread inside the plane.
Officials from the local coroner's office said that identification of the dead, who have been placed in a makeshift mortuary in an airport hangar, was due to start today but would be difficult because of the condition of the badly burned bodies. Dental and medical records were being assembled, but officials said a list of names probably would not be released until next week.
The accident occurred when the plane was about two-thirds of the way down the main runway, heading for takeoff at more than 100 mph. The pilot's radioed report of engine trouble was followed within seconds by a large burst of flame in the port, or left, engine. Authorities said today that the blast apparently took place in the engine combustion chamber and that metal fragments ripped through the fuel lines and tanks in the wing, spraying flaming fuel over the fuselage.
The pilot braked the plane to a stop as the plane turned right off the side of the runway. It was at this point, some passengers said, that they heard calls -- which some described as coming from the cockpit over the loudspeaker and others said were shouted out in the passenger compartment -- telling them to remain in their seats.
"I looked back down the fuselage -- this was a couple of seconds after the plane had come to a standstill -- and already there was orange flame from about the wing section backward," said passenger David Ashworth, who escaped with his wife and child.
"Beyond the flames was just one thick ball of black smoke . . . .There is no question in my mind that between stopping and the time when the chutes were opened and available to people to get out, there was a delay where people were not sure what they should have done."
"The last instruction I remember was for people to stay seated, and between staying seated and knowing you'd have to get out of the seats, seconds were lost," Ashworth said. Just as firefighters from the airport fire brigade arrived on the scene, a second explosion shook the plane, hurling two firemen out of the door.
According to Anna Findlay, 20, just after the plane halted "two men shouted -- everyone sit down, don't panic -- and everyone sat down then. Five seconds later, the windows had cracked and the smoke started coming in and everyone just stood up and ran out."
"You're not conscious of the other people -- they're just like a big sea -- and you've got to get through it . . . . I climbed over other people and people climbed all over me," she said.
Six of the 15 survivors still hospitalized today remained in intensive care. Some of the less seriously injured, including Findlay, agreed today to talk to reporters.
Another, Debra Whalley, 22, was traveling with her boyfriend, who also survived, and two friends who did not. "It's very upsetting," she said, "but just at the moment, I'm trying not to think about it."