An Aug. 3 article on the crash of an Air France jet in Toronto incorrectly reported the view of John Cox, a safety consultant and former head of safety for the Air Line Pilots Association. Cox said that the grooves in the Toronto airport runway help prevent the buildup of puddles, which limits hydroplaning. (Published 8/5/2005)
An Air France passenger jetliner carrying 309 people skidded off a runway and burst into flames Tuesday afternoon while landing in Toronto during a dangerous thunderstorm -- yet no one died in the crash.
Passengers described chaos as the plane rolled at least 200 yards off the end of the runway into a wooded ravine at 4:03 p.m. The fuselage cracked, flames shot into the air and passengers screamed as the 12-member flight crew threw open emergency doors and laid down slides within seconds. Hundreds of passengers could be seen jumping and running even as fire and thick clouds of black billowed from the airplane.
"We were really scared -- we could see flames just rising," passenger Olivier Dubois told CNN. "The crew opened the emergency doors on the side of the plane away from the flames and we managed to just jump and run.
"People were screaming and panicking," Dubois added. "The fear really was that the airplane would blow up."
Officials with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority reported that 43 people were injured and taken to hospitals. The figure was startlingly low given the jetliner's speed as it skidded off the runway and the quickness with which flames appeared to consume the craft. Emergency vehicles and fire engines lined up beside the airplane within minutes of its landing, shooting plumes of water into the jetliner.
"Flight attendants are trained to evacuate within 90 seconds -- all passengers off," said Peter Fiske of the Professional Flight Attendants Association. "It's been tested, it's been drilled. Obviously something went right with this crew."
Air France Flight 358, an Airbus A340-300 arriving from Paris, was trying to land at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Tuesday afternoon when it ran into an intense thunderstorm. Passengers reported that the jetliner appeared to lose electrical power just before touching down, and several witnesses claimed to see a bolt of lightning strike the airplane. The jetliner bounced and heaved, passengers said, before running into a ravine designed to stop planes from crashing into nearby Highway 401.
Footage of the burning airliner was broadcast live on television in Canada and the United States. A portion of the plane's wing could be seen jutting from the trees as smoke and flames poured from the middle of the broken fuselage, less than 100 yards from the highway.
"When we went off the runway, I thought that looked to me like the end," another passenger, Roel Bremer, told CNN. "My biggest worry was that it might explode. I don't know how much you think at a time like that. You are just running."
"The fire was mostly in the center" of the fuselage, said Wobert Boudreau, a passenger traveling with a group of 48 children who all evacuated without injuries. Boudreau said the pilot circled Toronto for 20 minutes before landing because of the storm.
Rayed Hantash, who was driving to the airport to meet his brother, who was aboard the flight, said he had not heard about the crash and realized something was wrong only when he got a call on his cell phone. His brother had stopped a passing car on the nearby highway and used someone's cell phone to place the call. "I will give him a big hug and take him home," said Hantash, who was eagerly awaiting his brother later at the airport.
The airport issued an alert due to the severe weather, prohibiting ground crews from working outside.
Toronto has suffered an unusually prolonged heat wave recently, punctuated by severe thunderstorms. In the minute before the Air France jetliner touched down, witnesses said, the sky changed to a purple-black color. A local news station reported that its staff counted 65 lightning strikes in the hour before the crash.
Nonetheless, pilots say, the final decision to land at an airport always rests with the flight crew rather than with air traffic control.
"The right to deny the decision to land remains with the captain," said John Cox, a safety consultant and former head of safety for the Air Line Pilots Association. "The pilots have the most up-to-date information on board."
Terry McVenes, safety chief at the association, said investigators would clearly examine the role weather might have played in the crash. "Heavy rain can reduce your performance," he said, "just like in your car."
Cox, however, emphasized that Toronto's airport has long, grooved runways, which should prevent the buildup of puddles, but which can also lead to hydroplaning. "I know that runway, 24 Left, very well," Cox said. "What you're concerned about is, where did the plane touch down and how fast was it going?"
Safety investigators will interview the flight crews and the air traffic controllers and examine the cockpit's voice and flight data recorders, if they survived the fire. The recorders are known as the "black boxes."
Toronto's airport handles more than 28 million passengers a year. It sits 17 miles west of central Toronto and has three terminals.
The last major jet crash in North America was on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587, headed to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, lost part of its tail and plummeted into a seaside neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people. Safety investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot's moving the rudder too aggressively.
In 1999, a jetliner overshot the runway in Little Rock and crashed in rain and a hard crosswind, killing 11 people.
Paris-based Air France-KLM Group is the world's largest airline in terms of revenue. It is the product of the French flagship airline's acquisition last year of Dutch carrier KLM. For the year ended in March, the company earned $443 million on revenue of $24.1 billion.
Air France-KLM operates a fleet of 375 planes and has 1,800 daily flights, according to the company's Web site. In the last fiscal year, it carried 43.7 million passengers to 84 countries around the globe.
Staff writer Michelle Garcia in New York and special correspondent Natalia Alexandrova in Toronto contributed to this report.