An American Airlines jetliner landing in fierce wind gusts careered off a rain- and hail-slicked runway here, slammed into a light tower and broke apart in flames, killing eight passengers and the pilot and injuring more than 80 others on board.
The jet, a twin-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-80 carrying 139 passengers and six crew members, touched down at Little Rock National Airport about 11:50 p.m. Tuesday after a bumpy, two-hour flight from Dallas, officials said -- just as violent thunderstorms and winds exceeding 80 mph swept through the region.
Survivors said the plane swerved out of control almost immediately after hitting the runway. Flight attendants shouted for passengers to brace themselves. The plane sailed off the end of a 7,200-foot runway at a high speed and crashed into the steel tower. Had it proceeded seconds more, the jet might have plunged into the Arkansas River, officials said.
The crash tore a huge gash in the fuselage between the jet's crushed nose and its passenger cabin. Dazed passengers, some panicked and many injured, scrambled in the smoke and darkness to get out through an emergency exit and through other holes ripped in the fuselage. As they struggled to escape, survivors said, the rear of the passenger cabin was engulfed by a fireball that appeared to have come from the plane's left wing.
"You could hear people shrieking because of the fire," said Jamie Goss, a Georgetown University student who was in Seat 13A. "It was just chaos."
As Flight 1420 came to a halt in grassy lowland not far from the riverbank, Goss said, she hesitated in her seat. "You think you are going to die," she said in an interview. "Then you think, `I can't die! I've got to get out of here!' "
"I've never been so lost in my life," she added.
Investigators said today the weather was among several factors they are examining in trying to determine the cause of the crash. Other issues for inquiry involve the crew, which had been on duty 13 1/2 hours.
American had never had a fatal crash of an MD-80, although it is the largest owner of MD-80s in the world. However, another plane landing late at night at Bradley Field in Hartford, Conn., on Nov. 12, 1995, slashed through trees short of the runway in gusty winds and rain, sliding to a stop just short of the runway. That plane's crew also had been flying for most of the day and chose to attempt a landing even though the tower was closed because winds had smashed its glass.
Goss, who turned 21 Tuesday, described a plane out of control from the first moment of the landing, with the pilot struggling to slow it down and keep it on the runway.
"He couldn't," she said. "I thought we were never going to stop. Every time he would try to brake, we would go to the left. I realized we were going farther and farther to the left. I was looking out the window at the ground, and the third time he tried to slow down, I saw the grass rushing by and knew we were in trouble."
She said passengers, in the initial seconds after the landing, were calm and quiet, until the plane slammed into the light tower.
"The cabin started filling with smoke and the plane was breaking up," said survivor Luke Hollinsworth. "We had to rip open [the gashes] in the plane and climb out."
As orange flames shot from the rear of the jet, Goss said, "we scrambled over the seats, up the aisle, and then over all the debris to the hole so we could get out. A man who had gotten out first told us: `Go this way! Go this way!'
"More debris had piled up outside the plane next to the hole, and passengers climbed down the mound onto a soggy field," she said.
Amid screams, darkness and swirling rain, as fire trucks and ambulances rushed toward them, she said, "we crossed a little piece of water and ended up in a field in a hailstorm. I thought a tornado was going to pick us up and take us away. We could still see the plane and the fire."
Of the nine dead, only the jet's captain, Richard Buschmann, was identified. Officials said Buschmann, one of American's four chief pilots in Chicago, had logged more than 9,500 flying hours since joining American in 1979, and had flown more than 5,500 hours as a captain on MD-80s.
Investigators said it was unclear why Buschmann chose to land the plane amid such high wind gusts. The National Weather Service here recorded winds over 50 mph with gusts as strong as 75 mph before the jet landed, and alerted Little Rock's control tower. The airline said the information was relayed to Buschmann.
"It's ultimately a pilot's decision whether to land or not," said George W. Black, a National Transportation Safety Board member.
American's chief pilot, Cecil Ewell, said he would not have tried to land a jetliner in winds exceeding 57.5 mph. "If someone told me there were 50-knot wind gusts at the airport, I would leave town," Ewell said at a news briefing.
Black, who said an instrument near the runway recorded a peak 87 mph gust five minutes after the crash, said investigators will analyze the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Flight 1420's first officer, Michael Origel, who suffered a broken leg in the crash, had not been extensively interviewed.
The deaths were the first fatalities aboard a scheduled U.S. passenger flight since Dec. 28, 1997, when a woman was killed during heavy turbulence over the Pacific, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Officials said Buschmann, Origel and four flight attendants began Tuesday in Chicago, flew to Salt Lake City and then to Dallas, where they changed jets, boarding the narrow-bodied MD-80, built in 1983. The crew had been on duty just shy of the 14-hour limit at the time of the crash, officials said.
Goss, whose father is a lawyer with the law firm of presidential adviser Bruce Lindsey, was flying home from Washington to visit her parents here. She departed from Baltimore-Washington International Airport and, like the flight crew, she changed planes in Dallas. She said the weather there was overcast.
Weather delayed the scheduled 8:28 p.m. departure from Dallas until 10:40 p.m. The jet was about 20 minutes from Little Rock when "a pilot announced they expected rough weather on the way into the airport. The pilot pointed out lightning flashes on the left side of the aircraft," Goss said.
The crash occurred on the plane's second attempt at landing, the Dallas Morning News reported, citing a source close to the investigation. Seven minutes earlier, the crew had been cleared to land on what is known as a visual approach -- without use of specialized instruments. But the plane was forced to go around after the crew lost sight of the runway in the approaching storm.
The airport's radar, a low-level wind shear alert system, indicated a possible wind shear, or change in wind speed and direction, a few minutes before the crash. That warning caused the flight crew to ask for a change in runways, to the only one with an instrument landing system, the Dallas paper reported.
Weather conditions worsened, and four minutes later, as the jetliner landed, a massive crosswind caused it to skid off the slick runway.
"If they had decided to do the instrument landing on the first pass, they would have been able to land and taxi to the terminal. Everything would have been, `Rainy night, normal flight,' " the paper quoted the source as saying.
Instead, it ended with a crash, flames, screams and frantic escape.
"Once the smoke got too thick, there was nothing we could do," said Barrett Baber, a member of the Ouachita Baptist University singing group on the last leg of a concert tour. "People were screaming, `God, please save us!' "
Black said at a news briefing that the first airport firefighting equipment reached the scene seven minutes after being notified.
A source told the Dallas paper that a power failure slowed attempts to open the bay doors at the airport fire station. Then the first truck drove toward the wrong end of the runway, the source said. "Crash-fire-response is something that we will be looking at," one safety board official said.
Goss, whose arm was injured, was home today. "It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me in my life," she said. "You think a million things in the middle of something like that. I thought about my parents."
Staff writer Don Phillips and special correspondent Michael Haddigan contributed to this report.
The Crash of Flight 1420
American Airlines Flight 1420 from Dallas crashed at Little Rock National Airport just before midnight Tuesday.
1. Hail and winds gusting up to 87 mph hit the airport as the plane lands.
2. Plane touches down and skids on rain-slicked runway.
3. Plane rotates 150 degrees as it skids.
4. Plane leaves pavement and hits a steel tower supporting approach lights, splitting in two and catching fire.
* Most people killed were seated on left side of plane.
* Pilot Richard Buschmann killed; co-pilot Michael Origel suffers broken leg.
* Fire breaks out near left wing, erupting into fireball.
Maker: McDonnell Douglas
Wing span: 107 ft.
Length: 147 ft.
Height: 29 ft.
Max. speed: 575 mph
Maiden voyage: June 1983
Flights plane had completed: 26,700+
Crew: Pilot, co-pilot, four flight attendants
Passengers aboard: 139
Here is a history of crashes involving U.S. carrier jets in which there were fatalities or the plane was badly damaged or destroyed during a landing in stormy weather.
SOURCES: Jane's "All the World's Aircraft," Airclaims Inc., staff and wire reports.
CAPTION: Police stand guard over the wreckage of the American Airlines MD-80 that crashed at Little Rock National Airport.
CAPTION: The crew of American Airlines Flight 1420 had been on duty 13 1/2 hours leading up to the crash landing in Little Rock.