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Toronto air crash: 'We thought that was really the end'
Plane leaves runway, bursts into flames; all 309 aboard survive

By Rob Gillies
and Beth Duff-Brown

Associated Press Writers

TORONTO — Just as Air France Flight 358 from Paris was about to touch down, the lights went off in the passenger cabin. Thunder roared and lightning cracked. Then, without warning, the jetliner skidded off the rain-slicked runway, slid into a ravine and broke into pieces.

An Air France Airbus A340 burns after running off a runway Tuesday at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
AP Photo, CP Photo by Jorge Rios
An Air France Airbus A340 burns after running off a runway Tuesday at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
The 309 people on board had only moments to escape before the aircraft burst into flames. Passengers screamed and panicked.

But remarkably, everyone jumped to safety.

Twenty-four people suffered minor injuries in the crash, which happened at 4:03 p.m. Tuesday. It was the first crash of an Airbus A340 in its 13 years of commercial service.

"The plane touched ground and we felt it was going off road and hitting a ravine and that's when we thought that was really the end of it," said Olivier Dubois, a passenger who was sitting in the rear of the plane.

"It was really, really scary. Everyone was panicking," Dubois told CTV. "People were screaming and . . . jumping as fast as possible and running everywhere, because our biggest fear is that it would blow up."

Roel Bramar, who was also in the back of the plane, said he used an escape chute to get out of the plane.

"We had a hell of a roller coaster coming down the ravine," Bramar told CNN.

The plane, carrying 297 passengers and 12 crew, overran the runway by 200 yards at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, said Steve Shaw, a vice president of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority.

The aircraft skidded down a slope into a wooded area next to one of Canada's busiest highways, and some survivors said that passengers scrambled up to the road to catch rides with passing cars.

The survivors said the power went off shortly before landing, perhaps after the plane was hit by lighting. But Dubois said he did not expect a crash landing and that there was no warning from the captain.

No time to spare

"It was very very fast," Dubois said. "As soon as the plane stopped, they immediately opened the side of the plane where we couldn't see anything and they told us to jump."

There was no time to spare.

Just moments after the crash, a portion of the plane's wing could be seen jutting from the trees as smoke and flames poured from the middle of its broken fuselage.

A row of emergency vehicles lined up behind the wreck, and a fire truck sprayed the flames with water. A government transportation highway camera recorded the burning plane, and the footage was broadcast live on television in Canada and the United States.

Dubois said some passengers scrambled onto nearby Highway 401, where cars stopped, picked them up and took them to the airport. Two busloads of passengers were taken to an airport medical center.

Lightning, rain

Corey Marks told CNN he was at the side of the road when he watched the plane touch down and crash.

"It was getting really dark, and all of a sudden lightning was happening, a lot of rain was coming down," Marks said. "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."

Relatives and friends were taken to the Sheraton hotel at the airport and asked to wait there until the passengers joined them.

Rayed Hantash said his brother, 25-year-old Mohammed Hantash, was on the flight and called him on his cell phone immediately after the crash to tell him he was fine.

"As the plane stopped, they jumped off and made their way across to the highway," Hantash said. "I'm going to give him a good hug and good kiss and take him home."

Airbus spokeswoman Barbara Kracht said the A340 has never crashed before in its 13 years of commercial service.

Chris Yates, an aviation specialist with Jane's Transport magazine, said the A340 is a very popular "workhorse" among carriers serving Asian and trans-Atlantic routes, with a very good safety record.

Weather-related?

Although it was too early to draw any conclusions about the accident, Yates said, "we're probably talking about a weather-related issue here."

Modern airliners are safer than ever, but extreme conditions can still be dangerous, especially during takeoff and landing, he said.

"You can never account for weather," Yates said. "A thunderstorm can happen anywhere — it comes down to the judgment of the air traffic controller and the skill of the pilot to determine whether it's appropriate to land or to divert elsewhere."

Tuesday's airplane crash in Toronto came exactly 20 years after an American disaster that focused renewed attention to wind shear, a natural phenomenon that can make airplanes drop out of the sky.

While the cause of the Toronto crash has not yet been determined, the fact that it happened during a thunderstorm raises the possibility of wind shear.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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