Lee Bee Yee was sleeping on her flight from Singapore to Milan early Monday morning when the flight crew informed her and the more than 200 people on board that their flight would be turning back to the airport.
They’d been in the air for two hours, she told Channel NewsAsia, and the plane smelled strongly of fuel. The pilot said the right side engine was leaking oil, she told the TV station, which meant that they’d have to proceed without it. But that would make the whole plane vibrate, unfavorable conditions for the flight to Milan.
She and her husband didn’t think much of it, she told Channel NewsAsia.
When the plane touched back down at the Changi airport in Singapore at about 6:50 a.m., the 222 passengers on board and 19 crew members cheered and clapped, Lee Bee Yee said.
But then came a spark, and soon the entire right wing of the plane was engulfed in flames.
For several minutes, those onboard were asked to remain calm and seated, watching from inside the plane as emergency crews worked to extinguish the blaze. They poured water and foam over the wing and eventually tamed the flames.
“Passengers disembarked through stairs and were transported to the terminal building by bus,” Singapore Airlines said in a statement on Facebook.
There were no injuries, the airline said.
Online, people both on the plane and at the airport posted footage of the burning vessel, a Boeing 777-300ER. Plumes of thick, black smoke seeped into the sky. The wing glowed brilliant shades of red and orange.
Alongside a video she filmed from inside the plane, Lee Bee Yee wrote that the five minutes they waited for the firefighters to extinguish the flames was “heart wrenching.”
“I just escaped death!” she wrote. “I thank God I am alive! I going home to hug my kids.”
Singapore Airlines said in its statement that those passengers who wished to continue to Milan were transferred to another plane.
“Singapore Airlines will be co-operating fully with the authorities in their investigations,” the statement said.
An analyst told Reuters that the aircraft’s pilots followed proper procedure by turning the flight around once the engine oil issue was detected.
“When the plane slows down as you land, fuel can cling to the wing and surfaces. Sparks from the hot brakes after they landed could have the triggered the fire and it does appear quite dramatic. But they appear to have gotten that under control very quickly,” Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor at industry publication Flightglobal, told Reuters. “There don’t appear to be any procedural issues here.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote on Facebook that he woke up to news of the airplane fire Monday morning.
“Relieved that all onboard disembarked safely,” he wrote. “Thanks to SQ and Changi Airport for the swift response. The Air Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) is investigating the cause, and will get to the bottom of the matter.”
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Facebook he was “relieved” to learn all passengers and crew members were safe after the fire. He also confirmed that the incident was being investigated “as to the cause and whether any of our procedures can be improved further.”
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