Boeing sends investigator after jet explodes in Japan

All 157 passengers and 8 crew members survive; initial reports show that fuel leak from right engine may have led to series of blasts.

japan jet blast 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
japan jet blast 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
They made it out just in the nick of time. The 157 passengers and eight crew members had barely finished sliding down the emergency chutes of the smoking China Airlines jet on Monday when it suddenly exploded, and flames engulfed the center of the craft. For the scores of holiday-makers and others who had flown on the Boeing 737-800 from the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, to Naha on the Japanese island of Okinawa it was a moment of sheer terror - even if there were no serious injuries. Screams erupted from the tarmac as passengers raced to get away from the burning plane, and emergency personnel moved forward to begin putting out the flames. A figure thought to be the pilot hung onto the cockpit window for several seconds before dropping to the tarmac and sprinting away from the exploding plane. A Taiwanese woman said she was stricken with fear the moment she slid down the chute. "I was running and crying," said the woman, who declined to identify herself. "Running and crying." Another passenger who gave only his surname, Chen, said he started running the moment he slid off the plane. "I ran so hard my sock tore," he said. "I think I got my life back." Footage from Japanese broadcaster NHK showed a lone firefighter trying to douse the blaze with what appeared to be a chemical retardant immediately after the explosion. But the plane was quickly rocked by two more explosions, which brought the fuselage crashing onto the tarmac. Japanese Transport Ministry official Akihiko Tamura said that airport traffic controllers had received no report from the pilot of the Taiwanese airliner indicating anything was wrong as it came in to land, and even as it stopped near the terminal to let passengers disembark. "The fire started when the left engine exploded a minute after the aircraft entered the parking spot," he said. China Airlines spokesman Sun Hung-wen said that the 737 skidded after landing, igniting a fire that prompted the emergency evacuation. "The plane landed safely so we are still checking why there was a fire," he said. Even after landing, passengers reported that nothing was amiss. But as the aircraft came to a halt near the terminal, things started to go terribly wrong. The unidentified Taiwanese woman said first the left engine started to smoke, then the right engine, and then "there were these big bangs." "When the smoke started people were just pushing and shoving each other," she said. It was total chaos." A guide for Taipei's Southeast Tours, who identified himself by his surname Tsang, said that when the smoke started to billow outside the plane, the cabin crew was already standing by the doors, ready to bid farewell to the passengers. "The passengers saw the smoke first and they began to yell and demand that the doors be opened," he said. Tsang said the entire evacuation took no more than 90 seconds. "About 30 seconds after I slid down the chute and began to run toward the terminal I heard two big explosions," he said. "I had no idea it would be this serious." Local fire official Hiroki Shimabukuro said two passengers - a 7-year-old girl and a man in his 50s - were hospitalized because they felt unwell, but not because they were injured. A ground engineer was knocked off his feet by the force of the blast, but was not hurt, the Transport Ministry said. Initial reports from ground personnel showed that a fuel leak from the right engine could have led to a series of explosions, according to another ministry official, Fumio Yasukawa. The fire was put out about an hour after it started, leaving the aircraft charred and mangled. Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration head Chang Kuo-cheng said authorities ordered China Airlines and its subsidiary Mandarin Airlines to ground their 13 other Boeing 737-800s pending a thorough inspection. Japanese aviation authorities also ordered an emergency inspection of all Boeing 737-800 planes owned by Japanese airlines, as well as some 737-700 models that carry a similar engine. The US Federal Aviation Administration is sending investigators to examine the scene, spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said in Washington. The US National Transportation Safety Board is also sending two investigators to Japan to look into the fire, said spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz, also in Washington. Boeing will likewise dispatch an investigator to Japan in response to a request from the local aviation authorities, company spokesman Jim Proulx said. The Okinawa fire is a setback to China Airlines, which in recent years appeared to have improved on a troubled safety record. A China Airlines 747 crashed in 2002 as it flew from Taipei to Hong Kong, leading to 225 deaths, and some 450 people died in China Airlines accidents during the 1990s. "We are prepared to do our best to get to the bottom of this incident," China Airlines president Zhao Guo-shi told reporters at a press conference at Naha airport late Monday. "I apologize for the trouble we have caused our passengers."