Textbook evacuation by air crew saves jet passengers

All 309 people on board jumped out of the plane or slid down escape chutes, some with just seconds to spare, before the plane erupted in flames. Nobody died and only 14 people suffered injuries serious enough to warrant hospital treatment.

The airport fire chief, Mike Figliola, said that by the time his crews arrived on the scene - merely 52 seconds after the crash - three-quarters of the passengers were out. At that point, the tail was already on fire and the heat was so intense that Mr Figliola felt his face burning from 50 yards away.

The last man off was the co-pilot, who was at the controls when the Airbus A340 came to grief in a raging thunderstorm. "This is what they're trained to do and they did it perfect," Mr Figliola said. "It was a textbook case."

Canadian air transport officials said they were hoping to retrieve the flight recorders and begin their investigation into the cause of the crash as soon as the blackened fuselage stopped smouldering. Initial assessments, based on witness testimonies from the passengers and crew, suggested the weather was at least partly to blame for the crash and that the plane may have been struck by lightning as the wheels touched down.

Passengers said the lights went out as the plane was landing, as lightning crackled around the plane. When the undercarriage hit the runway, people started clapping out of relief. Then came a sound like a blown tyre and the plane started to veer out of control. "All of a sudden, everything went up in the air," Roel Bramar, a passenger, told Canadian television. "We had a hell of a roller-coaster going down the ravine."

As soon as the plane had thudded to a halt, the cabin crew began directing passengers out of the emergency exits. Two chutes at the front of the plane failed to open, one passenger told the Toronto Sun newspaper, but attendants encouraged people to jump. "People were falling on top of each other," said the passenger, identifying himself only as Eddie. At least one passenger broke a leg in the mêlée.

The survivors scrambled up the side of the ravine and emerged on Highway 401 rain-soaked and caked in mud. Motorists and a hastily-arranged convoy of airport buses scooped them up and took them to the terminal building.

Investigators did not exclude the possibility that the problem was caused by a lightning strike at the moment of landing. That might have knocked out some essential systems and left the pilots with insufficient time to knock the fuses back into place and fire them up again.

Aviation experts in France, elaborating on that theory, warned yesterday that the increasing use of composite materials in aircraft construction could make them more vulnerable to lightning strikes.

An Air France accident investigator, François Grangier, said a lightning strike during landing could be difficult to handle. "If it strikes just as the braking mechanism comes into play it can be a problem because the braking instruments are sensitive to electrical surges," he said. "One can easily lose the ability to brake in those circumstances."

Air France's managing director, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, said there had not been a safety discussion between air traffic controllers and the Air France crew before the aircraft was cleared to land. "The Air France flight had been waiting to land and it was probably the first to land after the runways were reopened," he said.

The airline described the flight's 43-year-old co-pilot as a man of"solid" experience, with more than 10,000 flying hours, who had been with the company since 1985.

It said the aircraft came into service in 1999 and had last been inspected on 5 July. Airbus Industries, who built the four-engine A340, refused to comment.

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