Hundreds escape as flames engulf jet on crash landing

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The Independent US

More than 300 passengers and crew had an extraordinary escape yesterday after a transatlantic jet crashed and burst into flames while landing during a thunderstorm.

Officials confirmed last night that the 297 passengers and 12 crew were evacuated from the stricken aircraft - apparently just moments before several fireballs exploded and flames took hold. A total of 14 people required treatment for minor injuries.

"All I did was run like crazy," a passenger, Roel Bramar, said. "I was the second one off the plane and everyone was running like crazy. It was full. Totally full."

The crash happened at about 4pm as the full Air France A340 Airbus was landing at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Flight AF358 had left Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris at 1:32pm local time and was due to land at 4.12pm. Witnesses said they saw the plane skid as it touched down and then slide towards a depression at the end of the runway. Shortly afterwards flames could be seen coming from the plane and clouds of thick smoke enveloped the area.

Mr Bramar said: "I saw lightning. Just as we landed, the lights turned off and that's unusual. The captain wanted to lower the plane as quickly as possible."

Last night there were few details of how the plane was evacuated so quickly, although it is believed emergency crews were on the scene within less than a minute of the plane coming to a halt. One passenger said some people were clapping as the plane landed.

Steve Shaw, an airport spokesman, said the plane had overrun the runway by some 200 metres but was unable to confirm reports that it had been struck by lightning as it prepared to touch down. He confirmed that the airport had been under a state of "red alert" - a designation given when there are lightning strikes - for parts of the day.

Another passenger, Olivier Dubois, said those onboard had little idea what was happening and that there was no order for passengers to adopt an emergency position.

"You don't know at all what was happening. We think that we had to make an emergency landing," he said. "We had absolutely no insight or hint it would be this difficult. Just before we landed the plane was going extremely fast and the power shut down completely but we thought that was because of the rain or heavy winds or whatever. There was no more light in the plane. It was really scary. Very, very scary."

A witness who was driving along Highway 401, the road that passes what is Canada's busiest airport, said he saw the plane break into pieces. Corey Marks said: "It was getting really dark, and all of a sudden lightning was happening, a lot of rain was coming down. This plane ... came in on the runway, hits the runway nice. Everything looked good, sounds good and all of a sudden we heard the engines backing up. He went straight into the valley and cracked in half."

Officials said an inquiry had been launched by the federal Transportation Safety Board. A spokesman, John Contreau, said: "We will be working with the local emergency responders to secure the site, and we will begin the investigation as soon as the site has been handed over to us."

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