A Dec. 10 article about a fatal accident at Chicago's Midway International Airport incorrectly said it was the first U.S. commercial aviation fatality since January 2003. On Oct. 19, 2004, an American Connection flight crashed in Kirksville, Mo., killing 13. The article also incorrectly described a fatal 1972 crash at Midway. In that incident, a United Airlines 737 stalled on approach and crashed into a neighborhood. (Published 12/15/2005)
Runway conditions at Chicago's Midway International Airport were reported to be "fair to poor" by a pilot who landed just minutes ahead of a Southwest Airlines jet that slid off the landing strip and slammed into vehicles on a road Thursday night, officials said yesterday.
The accident killed 6-year-old Joshua Woods of Indiana. He was riding in the back seat of his family's Pontiac sedan, singing along with a Bruce Springsteen Christmas song, when the 737 crashed through a chain-link fence and hit the car.
The Woods family of five had just stopped at a McDonald's and were driving near the northwest corner of Midway, according to lawyer Ronald A. Stearney Jr., who is representing the family. Joshua and his two siblings -- ages 4 and 1 -- were eating in the back seat when their father, who was driving, heard a jet engine's roar, Stearney said.
Seconds later, the vehicle was pinned underneath the hulking fuselage as snow poured down. The father saw one of the 737's jet turbines spinning and "thought it would suck him in," Stearney said. The father climbed through a window of the crumpled sedan and pulled out his 4-year-old. He could not reach the infant or see Joshua.
When paramedics arrived, they used a hydraulic tool to rescue the 1-year-old and pull Joshua's body from the wreckage. The father remains in a hospital; the children were released and the wife checked herself out, Stearney said.
Two passengers on the 737, which flew to Chicago from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, suffered minor injuries, a Southwest spokesman said, and their names were not released.
The accident ends a stretch of nearly three years without a fatal commercial aviation accident in the United States. The last previous fatal crash occurred in January 2003, when a small US Airways Express flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, killing all 21 people aboard.
Safety experts said the crash of Southwest Flight 1248 bore a strong resemblance to an August accident in Toronto when an Air France plane overshot a runway during a thunderstorm and landed in a ditch, bursting into flames.
Experts said investigators are likely to focus on Midway's runway conditions at the time of the accident and whether the plane touched down too far down the runway, as well as looking at other related weather conditions. The airport received 7.7 inches of snow Thursday afternoon and evening, which fell at a rate of one inch per hour. After the crash, the airport closed its runways and airlines canceled more than 400 flights there and at O'Hare International Airport.
"Snow was definitely having a significant impact on both airports' operations," said Wendy Abrams, spokeswoman for Chicago Airport System, which operates both airports.
Officials said that three planes had landed on the same runway -- 31C -- in the 30 minutes before Flight 1248: a 757, a 737 and a Gulfstream G4. The pilots of the first two planes reported that the first two-thirds of the runway were clear but that braking on the last third of the runway was "fair to poor" because of the snow.
The pilot of the G4, who landed 21/2 minutes before Southwest Flight 1248, said conditions were "fair to poor" along the entire length of the 6,500-foot runway, said a source close to the investigation who would not speak on the record because of the probe. Runway 31C is relatively short for commercial airplane use and cannot accommodate an aircraft larger than a 757. The runway is shorter than those at Reagan National Airport.
Midway opened in 1927 in what was then a sparsely populated section of southwest Chicago. As the city grew, the airfield became hemmed in on all sides by development, precluding runway lengthening. The problem was exacerbated by modern, larger jets that require longer runways.
"With 6,500 feet, you don't have a lot of margin of error," said Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator. He said investigators will want to know where the plane touched down. "You want that plane down in the first third -- or in the 'touchdown zone' -- of the runway. If you land anywhere out of that zone, you increase overrun potential," he said.
It is always the pilot's decision whether to land, but the Federal Aviation Administration and the airport monitor runway and weather conditions to provide information for pilots to use in making the decision. If weather conditions are too poor, the airport will shut down runways.
Abrams said airport crews were working constantly Thursday to remove snow and monitor runway conditions. She said that crews had conducted "friction tests" to determine how slippery the runway was about 20 minutes before the accident and that "the braking action was good."
The weather conditions at the time of the accident were nearly bad enough to make a pilot think twice about attempting a landing at Midway.
Cloud ceiling was at 300 feet and visibility was a quarter-mile, according to the NTSB. The temperature was about 27 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind was at 11 knots, which would have created a crosswind and a tail wind, aviation safety experts said, making the landing a bit more challenging.
Midway experienced a similar crash exactly 33 years earlier -- Dec. 8, 1972. A United Airlines 737 skidded off a runway and crashed into several homes beyond the airport's fences, killing 43 of 61 passengers and two people on the ground.
In 2000, a Southwest jet overshot a runway in Burbank, Calif., and stopped feet from a gas station. No one was killed, and the accident was blamed on pilot error.
The FAA has required airports to build new runways with extended buffer areas beyond the concrete in case of aircraft overrun.
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.
It hit a car, killing a 6-year-old Indiana boy who was riding with his family. Almost three years of fatality-free commercial aviation in the United States ended when the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 slid off the Midway runway.