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All escape China Airlines jet before fireball erupts

Date Posted: 2007-08-23

Investigators from a myriad of Japanese, Taiwanese and American agencies are sifting through the charred remains of a China Airlines Boeing 737-800 that burst into flames and exploded at Naha International Airport Monday, only minutes after landing on a flight from Taipei.

Eight China Airlines crew members and 157 passengers escaped without injury, escaping on emergency slides at the front and rear of the aircraft moments after the plane had pulled to a stop in front of the airport’s international terminal at 10:35 am. Ground crews were preparing to disembark passengers when flames were spotted beneath the plane’s belly. Passengers immediately directed to emergency chutes.

By 10 a.m. Tuesday, more than 40 investigators, including those from the Okinawa Prefectural Police and the government's Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission were on the scene only scant meters from the International Terminal, to inspect the charred wreckage of the Boeing 737-800.

Leaked fuel is being investigated both by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and by Police as a possible cause of the fire. Two mechanics told Ministry investigators they saw a large amount of fuel leaking and smoke rising from the plane's right engine after it landed. Police say terrorism is not suspected in the explosion and fire.

China Airlines officials say a ground crew member spotted an oil leak on the engine just after it parked, and he notified the captain. The pilot initiated an emergency evacuation.

The control tower spotted smoke at 10:34 a.m. and immediately dispatched firefighters.

"After the plane landed, there were flames, and I heard explosions a few times, then saw black smoke," airport worker Hideaki Oyadomari said. "We felt the hot air coming our way."

NHK and other television media provided extensive live coverage of the explosion and fire. Several passengers questioned by NHK said they were getting ready to deplane normally, when suddenly they were told to use the emergency slides to evacuate.

The 47-year-old China Air pilot, meanwhile, has told Okinawa Prefectural Police investigators he noticed no abnormalities while airborne, or while landing. Investigators say there’s no evidence of negligence by the crew, or with aircraft maintenance, but say their work is still in the early stages. 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 9:23 a.m. Taiwan time. Eye witnesses at Naha say they first 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, Akihiko Tamura said fire erupted only moments after passengers had been evacuated, and the last crew members escaped through the rear of the aircraft.

Naha Airport Fire Department crews brought the fire under control at 11:37 a.m. By the time the fire was extinguished, the fuselage had collapsed.

Taiwanese Civil Aeronautics Administration head Chang Kuo-cheng said authorities have ordered China Airlines and its subsidiary, Mandarin Airlines, to ground their 13 other Boeing 737-800s pending a thorough inspection.

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 take off killed 225. In the 1990’s, a rash of China Airlines crashes and accident incidents claimed 450 lives. The worst were an April 1994 Airbus crash in Nago, killing all but seven of the 271 passengers and crew, a February 1998 Airbus crash at Taipei killing 196 aboard the plane and another seven at Chang Kai Shek International Airport, and a crash landing in Hong Kong in September 1999. In that MD-11 crash, only three of the 315 passengers and crew perished.

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