When the wheels of Air France Flight 358 finally touched the runway at Pearson International Airport at 4:02 p.m. Tuesday, dozens of passengers burst into applause.

Their display was a mixture of relief and nervous adrenaline after the plane, en route from Paris, safely navigated a pounding storm and streaks of lightning.

The respite was short-lived.

"When we touched the ground, people were clapping and cheering because we thought it was going to be a fine landing. Seconds later, we skidded off the runway and it was chaos," said Eddie Ho, 19, a Canadian student returning from South Africa.

"Lockers swung open, bags came falling down, ceiling tiles came off," he said at the airport Wednesday. "You were just sitting there like a rag doll. All I could do was pray."

As investigators and air safety officials began sifting through wreckage of the Airbus A340, the full story of the amazing escape of all 309 people on board began to emerge, told by passengers and rescue workers.

The crash, in which the jetliner skidded off the runway and into a ravine, left 43 people with minor injuries, officials said. Fourteen were still in the hospital Wednesday.

At first, the atmosphere on board was relatively orderly -- until passengers began to smell smoke and see flames rising outside the windows.

"The first five seconds after the plane stopped, people were very calm. They were actually quite decent, until they started seeing the fire. Then they started screaming . . . and all hell broke loose," said Olivier Dubois, who was returning from his sister's wedding in Paris.

"The flight attendants started shouting, 'Jump out! Jump out!' It was chaotic," he said. People were climbing over seats, parents were clinging to children, and some even tried to grab their luggage, Dubois said.

While officials praised the flight crew for getting the passengers off the plane rapidly, some on board said a number of problems held up the evacuation.

Some passengers were confused by an announcement over the public address system saying everyone should stay in their seats after the plane had stopped. Several had already started to smell smoke.

"I didn't breathe the smoke. I clutched my teddy against my nose," Lucas Guardascione, a boy of 7 traveling with his father, told Agence France-Presse.

At least one of the inflatable slides failed to open, according to those on board, while another became tangled during activation. This meant some passengers were urged to jump from heights of up to 15 feet to leave the plane.

Most injuries appeared to have occurred while people were leaving the plane.

Ho said he headed for an emergency exit near his seat, but found there was no slide attached to it. Despite prompting from the cabin crew, he refused to jump and eventually found another exit.

"There were two old ladies who were being urged to jump but were hesitating," he said. "There was a man underneath them trying to grab them."

Mike Figliola, the airport fire chief, said the flight crew safely evacuated all the passengers before the plane became engulfed in flames, three minutes after landing. He said fire crews arrived within 52 seconds of being alerted, by which time three-quarters of the passengers had been evacuated to a field.

Fearing the fire could ignite the fuel tank, some started running south toward Highway A401, one of Toronto's busiest roads. Cars had slowed to watch the drama, and passengers flagged them down, asking for rides to the airport.

The flames were so intense that the embers were only fully doused Wednesday, Figliola said. "My face was burning," he said, "and I was 50 yards away."

Figliola said the flight crew "did a great job; they're trained to get the people off."

The chairman of Air France, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, told reporters in France: "I don't know if we should speak of a miracle, but we can certainly speak of . . . the professionalism of the crew."

Passengers said the flight had been uneventful until they approached Toronto, when they could see a storm gathering as they prepared to land.

"Even though it was still daytime, the clouds made it so dark that it looked like night," Dubois said.

Passengers said that although the final descent was bumpy, they were not instructed to brace themselves. Unbeknownst to them, the airport was under a red alert, which indicates a potential lightning storm but does not prevent planes from landing or taking off.

"I've never experienced such a fast speed on landing," Dubois said. "Suddenly it was bumping and shaking and we could see the flames coming from outside while we were rolling off-road."

Investigators from Canada's Transportation Safety Board began combing through the wreckage at the end of Runway 24L. The team recovered the aircraft's black boxes, the cockpit voice and flight data recorders, and said they would be sent to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, to be examined.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also sent a representative because the engines were made in conjunction with General Electric, a U.S. firm.

Chief investigator Real Levasseur said the probe into the cause of the crash could take a year or longer.

The majority of the passengers were Canadian or French; 14 were American.

"Horror, horror. Just looking back at the plane and the whole thing, just black smoke coming out of it . . . we couldn't believe that thing happened," Johnny Abedrabbo, who was sitting in first class, told CBC Television.

Staff writer Sara Kehaulani Goo contributed to this report.

Emergency personnel inspect the charred wreckage of Air France Flight 358 in Toronto after it skidded into a ravine during a heavy rainstorm and lightning alert.An emergency team lifted a woman into an ambulance at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Tuesday. All 309 people aboard the Air France flight survived.