Passengers have lucky escape as plane crashes shortly before take-off at Philadelphia’s international airport

Witnesses saw a tyre on the landing gear blow and debris penetrate one of its two engines

Nearly 150 passengers aboard a USAirways flight at Philadelphia’s international airport appeared to have had a very lucky escape after their plane crashed shortly before take-off, seemingly after a tyre burst on the Airbus 320 and parts of it were sucked into one engine.

Early reports of the circumstances of the crash remained sketchy, but video and photographs showed the crippled plane after the incident, stuck on the runway at sharp forward pitch, its tail high in the air and inflatable slides deployed from all the aircraft doors. One runway at the airport remained closed as the crippled airplane blocked it. Other runways remained viable and the airport ordered only a brief ground stop for traffic.

While USAirways had yet to comment officially, witnesses said that trouble started when the plane was hurtling down the runway and a tyre on the front gear blew and debris penetrated one of its two engines, causing it to smoke. It was apparently the manoeuvres taken by the pilots to bring the plane to a rapid halt even as it traveled at high speed that subsequently caused the front gear to collapse.

First word from the airport was that three passengers were injured in the evacuation procedure but none of the injuries were thought to be serious. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board are headed to Philadelphia to investigate the incident.

Indeed, it seemed likely that there will be praise for the cockpit and passenger crew for averting what might have been a major disaster. It was debris from the runway flying into one of the engines of an Air France Concorde in July 2000 that caused it crash after take-off killing everyone on board. That accident eventually led to the retirement of all Concorde supersonic aeroplanes, including those operated by British Airways.

“Oh my God, oh my God, the plane is on fire, oh my God, my plane has crashed,” one distraught and panicked passenger was heard saying on a selfie video she took as she ran away from the aircraft across the airfield.  It did not seem the aircraft ever ignited, in spite of the heavy smoke seen trailing from the engine that was struck by the debris.

There were 149 passengers on the plane, Flight 1702, as well as five crew members. It was bound for Fort Lauderdale in Florida and was due to leave Philadelphia at 6.30pm on a very gusty and extremely cold, though blue-sky, evening.

USAirways, which recently agreed to be merged into American Airlines, is still remembered for the so-called ‘Miracle on the Hudson five years ago in January, when another plane in its Airbus fleet lost power after being struck by birds after taking off from New York’s La Guardia Airport and making an emergency and safe landing on the Hudson River alongside Manhattan. The captain of that flight, Chesley Sullenberger, became a national hero.

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