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Bolt, not fuel line, may have caused China Airlines fire

Date Posted: 2007-08-25

Aviation accidents investigators are crediting a ground mechanic with preventing great loss of life Monday morning when a China Airlines Boeing 737-800 burst into flames and exploded shortly after landing at Naha International Airport.
Investigators are, at the same time, examining the burned out airliner hulk in search for answers as to how the horrific incident began. Starting with the mechanic’s eyewitness accounts of fuel pouring from beneath the plane’s right wing as it taxied to a parking slot in front of the International Terminal, investigators first thought a broken fuel line could have been the culprit.
Thursday, detailed study of the wing showed a 2-3 centimeter hole in the starboard fuel tank, a discovery that made the investigators believe it was the hole, and not a fuel line rupture in the engine pylon, that caused the fire. Japanese inspectors say it appears the fuel tank puncture was caused by a loose slat bolt that broke loose from the wing. Boeing, which makes the 737-800, has confirmed to Japanese authorities that prior incidents of slat bolts coming loose and striking the fuel tank has caused leaks.
The bolt is one of many affixed to wing leading edge slats used to control aircraft lift when the plane is taking off or landing at slow speeds. The slats extend from the forward edge of the wing, in the same fashion as flaps do from the rear, to provide more wing area. Officials at the Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission say the slat bolts are several centimeters long, and that in this case, apparently came loose after landing, as the slats were being retracted.
Officials say all Japanese airlines using the Boeing 737-800—Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Skymark Airlines—have been told to check all slat bolts. A fuel line leak from a pylon that holds the engine to the wing, and which also contains separate lines from three fuel tanks in the wings and belly of the plane, was first thought to be the cause.
The fast-thinking mechanic is credited with saving lives of the 157 passengers and eight crew, including 14 Americans and 23 Japanese. Seeing the fuel leaking heavily as the plane taxied, the mechanic told the pilot via intercom. The pilot immediately ordered an emergency evacuation of the plane via slides. All aboard escaped the burning aircraft successfully.

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