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All 309 Aboard Air France Jet Survive Toronto Crash Landing

Special to The Times

An Air France jetliner carrying 309 passengers and crew members skidded off a runway and plunged into a ravine during a heavy thunderstorm Tuesday afternoon, but everyone aboard escaped before the plane was consumed by flames.

As many as 43 people suffered minor injuries, but witnesses said that despite the billowing flames, fear and confusion after the accident, all the passengers and crew from the airline’s Flight 358 from Paris exited the plane quickly, most of them using emergency evacuation slides.

There were reports that lightning may have struck the Airbus A340 just before it landed, disabling some of its electrical systems. Several passengers said the interior cabin lights failed about a minute before the plane touched down about 4 p.m. Officials said a “red alert” had been issued warning airport ground personnel of the lightning.

There also were reports that the jetliner slammed down hard on Runway 24L at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, raising the possibility that the aircraft encountered a microburst -- a powerful downdraft that can generate strong, erratic gusts during a thunderstorm.

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It was the first A340 crash since the jet went into commercial service 13 years ago.

Flight 358 veered into a shallow, forested gully about 200 yards past the end of the runway. Passengers said the fire started as the plane lurched to a halt near Highway 401, one of Canada’s busiest thoroughfares.

“The plane came to a rough stop, and that’s putting it mildly,” passenger Roel Bramar told Canada’s CBC television.

Passenger Gwen Dunlop said the people on board initially thought they had landed safely and applauded with relief.

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“Only seconds later ... obviously it wasn’t OK,” she told Associated Press.

One of the flight attendants told them, “ ‘You can calm down, it’s OK,’ and yet the plane was on fire and smoke was pouring in,” Dunlop said. “I don’t like to criticize, but the staff did not seem helpful or prepared.”

“It was really, really scary. Everyone was panicking,” Olivier Dubois, who had been seated near the back of the plane, told a television reporter. “People were screaming and ... jumping as fast as possible and running everywhere, because our biggest fear was that it would blow up.”

As the passengers and crew members fled the burning plane, firetrucks rolled up and began spraying the flames with water and fire retardant. Officials said the emergency crews reached the jetliner less than a minute after the crash landing.

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Dubois said some of the passengers scrambled onto the highway, where they were picked up by motorists and driven to the airport’s medical center. Others were taken to the medical center by bus.

Despite firefighters’ efforts, portions of the plane continued to burn for more than an hour. Evening rush-hour traffic on Highway 401 and some feeder routes was backed up for miles.

Toronto-Pearson is Canada’s busiest airport, handling more than 28 million passengers a year. The accident, which snarled air traffic at Pearson for several hours, caused rippleeffect delays at other airports. Some flights en route to Toronto diverted to area airports as far away as Ottawa.

In terms of revenue, Air France-KLM Group is the world’s largest airline, with $14.1 billion in the year that ended in March. The airline operates 375 planes and schedules 1,800 flights daily.

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The last major airline crash in North America occurred Nov. 12, 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus A300 bound for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, plunged into the New York City borough of Queens minutes after takeoff. The crash killed 265 people, including five on the ground.

Weather conditions in Toronto at the time of Tuesday’s accident were similar to those in Little Rock, Ark., on June 1, 1999, when an American Airlines jet skidded beyond a runway and caught fire. Eleven people were killed and 105 were injured in the crash, which was blamed on mistakes by a fatigued cockpit crew.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the worst errors in that event were the decision to land at Little Rock National Airport despite severe thunderstorms and the failure to activate and deploy wing-top spoiler panels that would have improved braking on the rain-slicked runway.

As the American Airlines crew prepared to land in increasingly stormy weather, air traffic controllers issued two wind-shear alerts. The NTSB said the crew should have abandoned its approach.

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Tuesday’s accident came exactly 20 years after a crash at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, blamed on wind shear, that killed 137 people. The crash of the Lockheed L-1011 drew attention to the meteorological phenomenon and led to the accelerated development of radar systems designed to detect it.

It was not immediately clear whether any wind-shear alerts were issued in Toronto before Tuesday’s accident.

“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 divert somewhere,” Chris Yates, an aviation specialist with Jane’s Transport magazine, told Associated Press.

Steve Shaw, a spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the red alert issued at Pearson did not require planes to stop landing, but was called to warn ground crews about the danger of lightning strikes. Ground activity such as unloading stops until the alert is lifted.

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Elena Tinaburri, an assistant manager at a duty-free store at the airport’s Terminal 3, where passengers from Flight 358 had been scheduled to debark, said people in the terminal weren’t aware of the crash until someone saw the smoke. “We couldn’t see the plane,” she said.

Tinaburri said friends and family waiting for the arriving passengers remained calm.

Special correspondent Rinehart reported from Toronto and Times staff writer Malnic from Los Angeles. Times wire services were used in compiling this report.


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