Child killed as plane skids off Chicago runway in heavy snow

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Federal authorities in the United States have begun an urgent investigation into a fatal aircraft accident in Chicago, when a Boeing 737 skidded off a runway in heavy snow, crashed through a perimeter fence on to a street and killed a six-year-old boy in a passing car.

The focus of the inquiry is likely to be whether it was safe to land at Midway airport at the moment when the Southwest Airlines plane touched down at 7.15pm on Thursday in thick, swirling snow. The flight was two hours late, and had circled for 30 minutes above the airport, waiting for conditions to improve.

The landing seemed normal at first, said Larry Vazzano, one of the passengers. "But we weren't able to decelerate as normal. That's when I realised something was wrong. I saw snow rush over the wing, then there was a big bump." Finally, the 737 ground to a halt, its front landing gear collapsed and its nose partly crushed, with one badly damaged engine resting on the ground.

Only three of the plane's 103 passengers were hurt. But the people travelling in two cars on Centre Avenue bordering the airport were not so fortunate. Eight were injured, including the boy's parents. Their son was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital.

"That was the toughest part," another passenger, Mike Abate, said. "We were safe on the plane, but the toughest part was when we saw that someone was under the belly of the plane."

The crash was the first accident involving a fatality for Southwest, the pioneering budget carrier whose profitability has been a conspicuous exception to the crisis gripping most of the airline industry. Though Midway was reopened yesterday to restricted traffic, the white Boeing jet remained where it had stopped, its lowered white front section protruding on to the street.

One factor may have been the shortness of the runway at Midway. Jets like the 737 need at least 4,900 feet to stop. The Midway runway was only 6,500 feet long, allowing a relatively small margin for overshoot. "We've been afraid something like this would happen," a resident said.

But the crucial factor, according to experts, was whether the runway had been properly ploughed before the plane landed. "The key will be just how much snow fell on the runway, because that determines braking action," said Greg Feith, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The accident came exactly 33 years after a crash at Midway that killed 45 people, two of them on the ground. In that crash, the pilot was trying to land when the plane struck tree branches and the roofs of several houses before smashing into one of them and bursting into flames.

Five years ago, another Southwest plane was involved in a similar incident at Burbank airport, near Los Angeles. It overshot the runway and ended up on a road, coming to a halt in front of a petrol station. No one was killed, but two passengers were badly injured.