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All aboard China Airlines jet accounted for after escaping fire

Date Posted: 2007-08-21

Eight China Airlines crew members and 157 passengers escaped without injury Monday morning only moments before the jet burst into flames at Naha International Airport.
The Boeing 737-800 had just pulled to a stop in front of the airport’s international terminal at 10:35 a.m. and prepared to disembark passengers when flames were spotted beneath the plane’s belly. Passengers were immediately directed to emergency chutes.
Leaked fuel is being investigated by both the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and by Police as a possible cause of the fire. A ground crew member reportedly saw fuel leaking from one of the five-year-old plane’s two engines. The plane had landed at 10:27 a.m., and taxied to its parking space before it caught fire.
China Airlines executives say they are investigating both the cause of the fire, and whether the flight from Taipei to Naha had experienced any problems. They say the plane engines had been inspected on July 6th and 8th, and that nothing was out of the ordinary. Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Authority has ordered all China Airlines Boeing 737-800 aircraft grounded until thorough inspections are complete. The Taiwan order extends to China Airlines’ subsidiary, Mandarin Airlines, a total of 13 planes. Japanese authorities have ordered all Japanese Boeing 737-800’s, as well as earlier model 737-700’s, to be inspected before further service.
In the initial moments after the flames billowed through the center of the aircraft, several crew members were trapped. They were all rescued within minutes, with the pilot the last to get out, jumping from a cockpit window. A seven-year-old girl and a 67-year-old man were both provided medical attention after saying they felt sick, but authorities said the two had not suffered injuries in the incident.
The 40-meters long twin-engine jet left Taipei at 8:15 a.m. Eye witnesses at Naha say they heard an explosion, then saw a burst of flames soaring ten meters into the air. An Aircraft and Railway Accident Investigation Committee has been sent to the scene. Air traffic controllers say there was nothing from the pilot indicating anything was wrong as the plane landed and taxied to its parking slot. A Transport Ministry spokesman told reporters “The fire started when the left engine exploded a minute after the aircraft entered the parking spot.” Akihiko Tamura said fire erupted only moments after passengers had been evacuated, and the last crew members escaped through the rear of the aircraft.
A China Airlines spokesman told reporters it appeared the plane skidded on the tarmac as it taxied from the runway to the gate. Sun Hung-wen says that may have started the fire, prompting the evacuation procedures. The Transport Ministry’s Fumio Yasukawa says ground personnel described a fuel leak from the right engine, which could have triggered a series of explosions. Some passengers described the evacuations as frightening, with one telling a reporter “I felt the explosion boom right after I got off the slide.”
All Boeing 737-800 aircraft use CFM 56 engines manufactured by CFM International. Boeing, which is sending investigators to the scene, says CFM is a joint venture between General Electric Aviation and the French company Snecma. The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency also has investigators en route to Naha.
China Airlines had been improving its safety record in the aftermath of a 2002 747 crash at Hong Kong. That crash, on a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong, killed 225. In the 1990’s, a rash of China Airlines crashes and accident incidents claimed 450 lives.

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