Passenger jet goes off Denver runway; 38 hurt
By P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press Writer P. Solomon Banda, Associated Press Writer
A Continental Airlines jet taking off from Denver went off the runway and caught fire Saturday night, forcing passengers to evacuate on emergency slides and injuring nearly 40 people, officials said.
No deaths were reported, but 38 people were taken to hospitals, said Kim Day, Denver International Airport manager of aviation. No one was reported in critical condition.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known. The weather in Denver was cold but not snowy when Continental Flight 1404 took off from Denver International Airport for Houston around 6:20 p.m.
Ground crews put out the flames quickly, said airport spokesman Jeff Green. The 112 people on board made it out on through slides on the Boeing 737.
The plane was carrying 107 passengers and five crew members, said Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark.
Denver Health spokeswoman Kalena Wilkinson said seven people were taken to her hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening. Five people were in fair condition at the University of Colorado hospital, a spokeswoman said.
The accident closed the airport's west airfield and caused delays of 40 minutes, Day said.
Firefighter: Miracle no one died on Denver runway
By KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press Writer Kristen Wyatt, Associated Press Writer
The wreckage of a 737 Continental plane sits at Denver International Airport on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008. …
DENVER – It was a miracle that no one was killed when an airliner veered sharply off a runway during takeoff, burst into flames and nearly broke apart, firefighters said Sunday.
There was no official word on the possible cause of the crash of Continental Flight 1404 at Denver International Airport, which injured 38 people. Flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered and appeared to be in good condition, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
The weather was clear but cold when the plane attempted to take off for Houston around 6:20 p.m. Saturday. Winds at the airport were 31 mph, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.
"No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind" before Flight 1404 tried to lift off, Gregor said.
The entire right side of the Boeing 737-500 was burned in the Saturday evening accident, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats. Investigators said the plane's left engine was ripped away along with all the landing gear.
"It was a miracle ... that everybody survived the impact and the fire," said Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport. "It was just amazing."
A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, Davis said.
Davis, one of the firefighters who rushed to the scene, said the plane came to a rest about 200 yards from one of the airport's four fire stations. Passengers walked out of the ravine in 24-degree cold and crowded inside the station, he said.
The 110 passengers and five crew members left the plane on emergency slides, officials said.
Passenger Emily Pellegrini told The Denver Post that as the plane headed down the runway, "It was bumpy, then it was bumpier, then it wasn't bumpy."
Gabriel Trejos told KUSA-TV in Denver that the plane buckled toward its middle and that the seats felt like they were closing in on him, his pregnant wife and his 13-month-old son, who was on his lap. His knees were bruised from the seat in front of him.
Maria Trejos told KUSA that there was an explosion and that the right side of the plane, where they were sitting, became engulfed in flames. The family used an emergency exit and slid down the wing of the jet to the ground.
The injuries included broken bones, but Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, didn't know whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation. Two people were initially listed in critical condition at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver but were upgraded Sunday, one to serious and one to fair, spokeswoman Tonya Ewers said.
Many passengers from the flight arrived in Houston, its original destination, on Sunday afternoon, some clearly injured, the Houston Chronicle reported online Sunday.
The gate where relatives waited at Bush Intercontinental Airport was blocked off from the rest of the terminal. One woman limped off the flight with red-rimmed eyes; another was in a wheelchair, wearing a neck brace, the newspaper reported.
A young boy was taken by stretcher straight to an elevator.
The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to have gotten airborne, city aviation manager Kim Day said.
Investigators said Sunday evening that work would start again at daybreak. Sumwalt said the damaged plane would remain for several days in the 40-foot-deep ravine where it landed. That runway will remain closed during the investigation, he said.
The ravine in which the plane came to rest sits between runways. Flat land is rare on the plains abutting the Rocky Mountains near Denver, and the airport was built on gently rolling country. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.
Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation. He declined to comment on whether Boeing had any indication of possible problems with the 737-500 jetliner.
Larry Kellner, Continental's chairman and chief executive officer, said his airline was doing all it could for the passengers, crew and their families.
"We will also do whatever we can to learn the cause of this accident so that we can prevent a recurrence at Continental or at any other airline," he said.
AP Business Writer Daniel Lovering in Pittsburgh and Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin contributed to this report.
NTSB on crash: 'We've got everything we want'
As Continental Airlines Flight 1404 veered off the runway, the right wing fuel tank ruptured, spilling fuel onto an engine where it ignited when the plane stopped, according to an account given Monday.
Bill English, National Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge, gave fresh details of the Dec. 20 crash and fire at the Continental Airlines hangar where the remains of the jetliner are stored.
The right side of the Boeing 737-500 was a charred, dense mess of wires, metal and insulation. The smell of smoke remained and jet fuel continued to drip out the wing - English believes a couple of hundred gallons are still inside.
No one died, but 38 passengers were injured when the plane crashed into a ravine while trying to take off with 110 passengers and a five-member flight crew on board.
English declined to comment on any crash theories. A final report is not expected for at least a year, English said. But he noted, "We don't have any indication now of an engine failure after a preliminary look."
English gave a few details investigators have found without elaborating on what they might mean. He said the condition of the engines and landing gear matched the information from the flight data recorder, or black box. There was no rubber debris on the runway, and data from 32 wind-sensors had been taken.
NTSB remains in the "fact-gathering stage" but Monday concluded the on-scene phase of the investigation, English said.
"We've got lots of good data," English added. "Evidence-wise, we've got everything we want. We just need to put it all together."
Twelve to fifteen people have been assigned to the case. A set of interim "factual reports" without findings or conclusions could be released in six to nine months.
The fuselage cracked in the crash, and that is where investigators fully cut apart the plane, revealing the rows of seats that were intact but burned on the plane's right side. A couple of everyday items could still be seen: a Sprite can and an airplane safety flier. Debris, including wheels and more chairs, was clumped around the plane.
Once the plane stopped, English said, the co-pilot dropped a yellow escape rope out the right cockpit window but decided against that route given the flames. He said the rest of the plane evacuated out the left side: A number of people first tried to go through the left "overwing exit" but that got too jammed and the crew directed people to the back and front doors.
"Really good job by everybody in there," he said.
WASHINGTON – It was very windy when a Continental Airlines jet was destroyed while trying to take off in Denver last month, leading aviation safety experts to cite crosswinds as a likely factor in the accident.
But were those winds strong enough to "weather-vane" the Boeing 737-500? In that phenomenon, the wind pushes an airliner's tail hard enough to swing its nose into the wind, like a weather vane. In Denver, experts suspect weather-vaning caused the plane to skitter off the runway in a bone-jarring ride across open, snowy fields, eventually coming to a halt and catching fire. But some additional factor — either mechanical failure or human error — probably also played a role, safety experts said.
Crosswinds were "definitely a contributing factor," said John Cox, a former pilot and president of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting firm in Washington. "Whether it's causal or not, I don't think you have enough information to go there yet,"
Gusts of up to 37 mph were reported at Denver International Airport on the day of the accident, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Cox and other experts said those gusts may have been strong enough to push the aircraft's tail around, but the plane's pilots should have been able to compensate.
Continental Airlines flight 1404 was taking off for Houston on Dec. 20 when the accident occurred. The main landing gear was sheared off, its nose gear collapsed, and the plane carrying 110 passengers rumbled about 2,000 feet from the runway. Thirty-seven people were injured.
NTSB officials have said the plane's brakes and engines appeared to have been operating normally. Investigators dug the destroyed nose gear out of the ground last week, and safety board spokesman Peter Knudson said preliminary results of that examination may be available later this week.
"We're looking at (crosswinds), but it's just one thing we're looking at," Knudson said. "Nothing is off the table."
Spokesmen for Boeing and Continental declined to reveal their guidelines on safely operating the 737-500 in crosswinds. However, Knudson said the winds at the time of the accident should have been "within the envelope" of what the plane could withstand.
NTSB has not identified the plane's pilot, and the Air Line Pilots Association declined to comment.
But John Nance, a former pilot and aviation safety consultant, was doubtful that crosswinds will ultimately be shown to be a cause. He said wind created by the plane's velocity as it gained speed heading north down the runway would have offset the impact of the crosswinds from the west.
"It would have taken a mighty burst of wind way, way above anything anybody has recorded, in my view," Nance said.
Also, he said, compensating for the type of crosswinds experienced in Denver that day would have been second nature for an experienced pilot, "just like riding a bicycle."
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