US plane crashes in storm, killing 9

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The Independent Online
AN INVESTIGATION was underway last night after nine people died and more than 80 were injured when an American Airlines plane skidded off the runway at Little Rock airport in Arkansas in a storm, hit a lighting tower, caught fire and broke into pieces. The plane, carrying 139 passengers and six crew, ended up in a backwater of the Arkansas river. The captain, one of the airline's most experienced pilots, was among the dead.

Survivors on Flight 1420 from Dallas, Forth Worth, spoke of ripping off parts of the fuselage with their hands to escape and stumbling across marshland in pitch darkness through driving rain and hail. An airport spokesman said the plane had spun almost 150 degrees, off the runway into the 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 after the impact "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 cracked the emergency door, and escaping passengers could squeeze through only one at a time. "There was panic, craziness, flames," he said.

At least 80 people were taken to local hospitals suffering from burns, broken bones and smoke inhalation.

The plane, an MD-80 which had recently been serviced and had no history of mechanical problems, was attempting to land at Little Rock shortly before midnight from Dallas, where it had been delayed more than two hours. There werethunderstorms in the area and reports of wind gusting at over 80mph.

The accident ended a run of 18 months in which no major US airline had experienced a fatal crash. The chief executive of American Airlines, Don Carty flew from Tokyo to the company's base at Fort Worth in Texas as soon as he received the news. He said he believed the death toll was no higher than reported but added: "Any single fatality is way too many for American Airlines. Any single injury is too many."

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. Bob Baker, the company's vice president for operations, said the investigation would "focus on conditions on the runway at the time of landing," but that there was no evidence of any problem with the plane'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.