US plane crashes in storm, killing 6

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The Independent Online
AN INVESTIGATION was in progress at Little Rock airport in Arkansas yesterday after an American Airlines aircraft skidded off the runway in a storm, caught fire and broke into pieces, killing at least six people and injuring more than 80. The captain, one of the airline's most experienced pilots, was among the dead.

Survivors spoke of ripping off parts of the fuselage to escape and stumbling across marshland in pitch darkness through driving rain and hail. An airport spokesman, Phillip Launius, said that the aircraft had spun almost 150 degrees, swerving off the runway and into a steel lighting tower.

One passenger said: "The plane was going so fast when we hit the ground, we went off the end of the runway. We hit a huge pole, and it split the plane in half. A fire started at the front of the plane and spread back."

Another passenger said that she looked over her shoulder after the impact, "and there was a huge fireball coming toward me. It was awful. We're lucky anybody survived".

Barrett Baber, a student returning from a choir trip to Germany, said that once the smoke got too thick, there was nothing anyone could do. "People were screaming, `God, please save us!" he said. He added that the impact had cracked the emergency door, and escaping passengers could squeeze through only one at a time. "There was panic, craziness, flames," he told local reporters.

The aircraft, an MD-80 which, according to the airline, had recently been serviced and had no history of mechanical problems, was attempting to land at Little Rock shortly before midnight after a delay of more than two hours at Dallas. There were heavy thunderstorms in the area at the time and some reports spoke of wind gusts of 80mph and more. Residents near the airport said heavy rain and hail was falling at the time of the crash.

A meteorologist at the National Weather Service, George Wilken, said that severe weather warnings were fed directly to flight controllers. "The [air-traffic control] tower would see our warnings and it would be their decision what to tell the pilot," Mr Wilken said. The National Transportation Safety Board would have to determine whether the storm was a factor, Mr Launius said.

The executive vice-president of American Airlines, Bob Baker, told reporters yesterday morning that there were 139 passengers and six crew on the aircraft, and 86 passengers and five crew members, including the assistant pilot, were safe. The exact number of fatalities had not been established: a section of the plane came to rest in a backwater of the Arkansas river, several hundred yards from the runway, and the search was still underway.

Mr Baker said that the investigation would "focus on conditions on the runway at the time of landing". He said that there was no evidence of any problem with the aircraft's braking. American Airlines has a fleet of 260 MD-80s, one of the largest fleets of any one type of aircraft in the world.

The accident ended a run of 18 months in which no major United States airline had experienced a fatal crash.