Korea jet 'in flames' at take-off

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The Independent Online

One of the engines on the Korean Air jumbo jet that crashed in Essex was on fire as it took off from Stansted airport, witnesses said yesterday.

One of the engines on the Korean Air jumbo jet that crashed in Essex was on fire as it took off from Stansted airport, witnesses said yesterday.

As safety inspectors examined engine debris found at the airport last night, the Government warned that there would be stringent new safety checks on the airline. And it was revealed that Korean Air, which has one of the worst safety records in the industry, had already been the subject of extra safety checks by Civil Aviation Authority inspectors.

All three of its planes investigated in spot checks by the authority were found to be fit for flying and it was decided that there was insufficient evidence to ground the airline.

The investigation into Wednesday's crash, in which the converted Boeing 747 cargo jet's four crew were killed, will consider a number of possible causes. Some experts pointed out yesterday that its cargo may have shifted, or that the pilot may have made an error in controlling the plane, but most attention centred on accounts of the engine seen blazing as the plane took off.

While it would have been possible to fly the 747 on its three remaining engines, it is thought that the fire may have spread to a second one, or that it may have exploded and destroyed the aircraft's control systems.

Witnesses at the airport said police officers had recovered bits of engine, fuselage and cargo along the runway, which points to a massive explosion even before the plane cleared the airport boundary. The flight, bound for Malpensa airport, Italy, took off heading south-west at 6.40pm on Wednesday, 11 years and one day after the Lockerbie disaster. It crashed almost immediately, coming down a mile from the airport, 100 metres from a farmhouse, close to Bishop's Stortford and the M11.

Air traffic controllers said there had been no "mayday" calls. Investigators have recovered one of two "black boxes" which should contain a recording of flight deck conversations.

Witnesses at the airport reported seeing an engine on fire before the plane left the ground and a number of other people said they saw the aircraft in flames before impact.

Remy Spruce, 8, who saw the aircraft fly past her family's kitchen window, said: "I saw a big spark go across the window then I heard a big bang." Her mother, Amanda, 33, confirmed that the plane was on fire in the seconds before impact.

The site where the Boeing hit the ground was littered with wreckage yesterday as it was revealed that the jet was carrying explosives as part of its freight, although a definitive list of its cargo was unavailable.

Tony Lilliot, Assistant Chief Fire Officer for Essex, said the explosives - in the form of detonating cord - were listed as potentially dangerous. While the consignment consisted of less than two kilos of detonating cord - an amount not expected to explode, the plane had been carrying 33 tons of fuel when it took off . That would explain the "fireball" seen by witnesses, added Mr Lilliot.

Korean Air has been involved in several incidents in recent years including a crash on the Pacific Island of Guam in 1997 in that 228 people died.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, visited Stansted yesterday and said: "I am very relieved that the population of the area was spared in this terrible accident," he said.

Norman Mead, chairman of the parish council of Great Hallingbury, near the crash site, urged Mr Prescott to ground Korean Air until the result of the investigation was known.

The airport, which was shut after the incident, reopened yesterday, but thousands of passengers face delays to their Christmas holidays . Airport officials hoped services would be back to normal by today.

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