When the Aeromexico passenger jetliner started rolling down the runway, and the rain, hail and intense winds picked up, the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez wondered if the pilot would stop the takeoff from the airport in Durango, Mexico.
Instead, Sanchez, who serves as rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, noticed that the pilot revved the engine on Flight 2431 bound for Mexico City. He said he thought the plane became airborne briefly.
Seconds later, a “microburst” pushed the plane back to earth with a thud, Sanchez recalled in a teleconference from Mexico on Wednesday. The plane’s landing gear buckled and the aircraft slammed to a halt.
Passengers said the Embraer 190 plane burst into flames right after it hit the ground.
“To be honest with you,” said Sanchez, adding that he had received flight training years ago, “I thought that was it. I’m just very grateful.”
Sanchez, who was in Mexico celebrating his birthday with family, and all the 102 others aboard the flight — including four crew members — survived, although some suffered severe injuries. Sanchez’s group included more than a dozen people from the Chicago area. And many others on the flight were believed to be from Chicagoland as well.
One was Alberto Herrera, 35, of Chicago. On Wednesday afternoon he, was in a hotel room in Durango waiting to hear when he would be able to board a return flight. He was supposed to get back to his home in the Clearing neighborhood yesterday, but was on flight 2431.
He said “a good 50 to 70 percent” of the passengers aboard the flight were from Chicago or heading there when, a few minutes after takeoff, the plane encountered turbulence and crashed.
Herrera said the plane flew into clouds and encountered severe rain, hail and turbulence, “and then, boom, we belly-flopped on the ground.” The plane experienced two more jolts – as if it struck something both times, said Herrera, who was seated at the window in row 20.
“When we hit the second time and you see the flames outside the window, yeah, that’s the moment when you think, ‘This is it. Hopefully it’s been a good run.’”
Once the plane skidded to a halt, Herrera said passengers rushed to exits, but were orderly and helpful to the elderly and injured. He said he went to a side rear exit and helped 5-6 people make the estimated 5-foot jump from the exit to the ground. His only injuries, he said, were scraped knees from them hitting the seat in front of him during the crash.
“It just makes you think that you’ve been given a second chance at life,” Herrera said on Wednesday. “You’re very, very grateful and appreciative of being able to create more memories with your loved ones.”
Herrera, a web developer, arrived in Durango last Wednesday to celebrate a niece’s baptism.
In the moments before takeoff, Sanchez, who said he was sitting near the front of the plane, recalled “a lot of joy” was evident throughout the cabin. After the plane crashed, “the smoke was unbelievable,” he said, “a burning sensation when breathing.” He saw flames.
Passengers scrambled to exit the plane and made their way through thorny, rocky terrain while the rain continued, Sanchez said. After he escaped, he said he walked among small groups of passengers and tried to administer aid.
Later, he and a girl with severe leg burns were placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Then he was transferred to a second hospital. The priest said he had multiple fractures in his arm and needs a surgically-implanted metal plate to help his arm heal, he said.
“I’ll be a bionic priest,” he said.
When asked if it was a miracle that everyone aboard survived the crash, Sanchez said, “Absolutely. I have no doubt.”
If the plane had been traveling faster, it would have flipped, he said. If it had gotten higher off the ground, “the story would have been very different,” Sanchez added.
The Archdiocese of Chicago issued a statement Tuesday night, saying it was “grateful to learn (Sanchez) is alert and resting. We pray for Fr. Sanchez and everyone affected by this plane crash.”
Officials said 49 people had been hospitalized — most with minor injuries.
Other passengers expressed gratitude to be alive, but many were extremely shaken.
“It was really, really ugly,” said Lorenzo Nunez, a passenger from Chicago who fled the plane with his two sons and wife. “It burned in a question of seconds,” he told reporters, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
“We felt the flames coming quickly there was a lot of smoke,” Jaquelin Flores told the newspaper El Sol.
Romulo Campuzano, head of a political party in Durango state who was on the plane, told Foro TV that both wings were on fire as he bolted from the aircraft.
Durango state Gov. Jose Aispuro said a gust of wind hit Flight AM2431 heading from the city of Durango to Mexico City just as it was lifting off the tarmac, forcing the pilot to abort takeoff.
Aispuro said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the crash. Mechanical failure and human error could be factors, but certainly the weather wasn’t favorable. Strong winds and heavy rain with marble-size hail lashed Durango city, even damaging hangars at the airport.
The pilot suffered the most serious injury, a cervical lesion that required surgery. Some people had burns on a quarter of their bodies, said Durango state Health Ministry spokesman Fernando Ros.
Aispuro said all were expected to live.
Conesa said the passengers included 88 adults, nine children and two babies and the crew consisted of two flight attendants and two pilots.
He said the jetliner had been sent for maintenance in February and crew members were well-rested, having started their work day in Durango.
The website Planespotters.net said the Brazilian-made medium-range jet was about 10 years old and had seen service with two other airlines before joining the Aeromexico fleet.
The Associated Press contributed from Mexico City.