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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A ‘miracle’: Plane erupts in flames while landing in Tokyo, but all aboard survive

By Motoko Rich, Hisako Ueno, Kaly Soto and Emma Bubola

As flight attendants​ yell​ed, urging passengers to evacuate, an eerie orange glow burned outside the windows of Japan Airlines Flight 516. The harrowing scene was caught on video from inside the plane, which collided with a Japanese coast guard aircraft as it was landing on Tuesday in Tokyo.

Through skill and luck — one aviation expert called it “a miraculous job” — the flight crew of the Japan Airlines plane evacuated all 367 passengers and 12 crew members safely at Haneda Airport near Tokyo Bay, according to Japan’s transport minister, Tetsuo Saito.

But five coast guard members, who had been headed to help with the earthquake relief in western Japan, were killed, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said during a news conference. NHK, the public broadcaster, later said 14 people had been injured on the passenger plane.

“The root cause of this accident is not known yet,” Saito said at a news briefing, adding that the country’s transport safety board and other agencies would work to determine what had happened.

Video aired by NHK shows a fireball streaking across the tarmac as the plane touched down.

As frightening as that looked from outside the plane, it was even scarier inside, said Anton Deibe, a 17-year-old Swede who was on the plane with his family, as quoted in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

He told the newspaper that his family did not understand exactly what was happening or the announcements, which he said were in Japanese.

His father, Jonas, told the newspaper, “The entire cabin was filled with smoke within a few minutes,” adding: “We threw ourselves down on the floor. Then the emergency doors were opened, and we threw ourselves at them.”

“The smoke in the cabin stung like hell,” Anton told Aftonbladet. He said that once they got out of the plane, he and his family had run out “onto the field.”

“It was chaotic,” he added.

“We are all completely in shock,” he said. “I don’t think we understood what had happened.”

The family later said they were doing well.

The Kyodo News agency of Japan quoted a passenger who described feeling as if the plane had hit something before it then jerked upward. The passenger, who was not identified, then told of seeing sparks outside the window and the cabin filling with smoke.

Japan Airlines said the plane had left New Chitose Airport in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido at 4:15 p.m. and was scheduled to land at Haneda at 5:35 p.m., but landed at 5:47. A coast guard official said the coast guard aircraft had started taxiing to the runway around 4:45 p.m., about an hour before the collision.

The airline said in a statement that the two planes collided and that both aircraft caught fire.

The airline added that according to interviews with the operating crew, the pilots “acknowledged and repeated the landing permission from air traffic control,” and then proceeded with the approach. In its statement, Japan Airlines said that the cause of the accident was still under investigation and that it was cooperating with officials.

Live footage after 6 p.m. showed firefighters trying to douse flames pouring out of the aircraft, an Airbus A350-900. Video showed the passengers using the evacuation slides to exit. According to Japan Airlines, the aircraft’s announcement system malfunctioned during the evacuation, so the crew used a megaphone and their voices.

The coast guard plane involved in the collision was a smaller propeller plane, according to the coast guard.

Japan Airlines drew praise for being able to safely evacuate 367 passengers under what was likely to have been enormous pressure.

Footage of the accident showed flames coming out the windows of the collapsed plane, making it seem impossible that everyone made it out safe.

Ed Galea, a professor and director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich in Britain, called the Japan Airlines 350 evacuation “a miraculous job.”

When the plane came to a stop, the nose gear collapsed, pitching the aircraft nose down with its tail up. Galea said in an interview that the footage showed passengers were evacuated from two of the exits at the front of the plane, and one exit at the back. Some of the “passengers essentially had to climb a hill in smoke,” he said. “A cabin crew stood at the back waving a torch, urging them to come forward.”

Maggie Kuwasaki, a Japan Airlines spokesperson, said in an email that because of the fire, only three doors were used for evacuation. Japan Airlines crews are trained to evacuate all passengers within 90 seconds, Kuwasaki said. The crew was able to confirm that all passengers had evacuated by 6:05 p.m., she added.

Trisha Ferguson, CEO of the Interaction Group, a company that designs airplane safety cards, said the fact that all the passengers managed to safely disembark in what could have otherwise been a deadly accident demonstrated successful cooperation between passengers and staff.

“The crew was spectacular in their reaction times,” said Ferguson, an aviation industry expert with 28 years of involvement in passenger safety education.

“What they did was amazing,” she added.

As part of safety testing of new airplanes, airlines must demonstrate that all passengers can be evacuated in 90 seconds. In the 1970s and 1980s, emergency training was mainly focused on the crew, Ferguson said, but in the 1990s and 2000s, new emphasis was placed on educating passengers how to react in emergencies.

In this case, passengers could see the smoke, giving them incentive to move faster and leave behind their luggage. When passengers stop to take their luggage during an evacuation, the process is slowed, Ferguson said.

“It really is a miracle that they got everyone out,” she said. Video showed the top of the plane had been completely burned off. NHK reported later Tuesday that about 100 flights were canceled because of the crash.

Alex Macheras, an aviation analyst, told the BBC that Japan Airlines is known in the industry for being a leader in safety.

Yoshio Seguchi, deputy director of the Japanese coast guard, apologized for the crash but also offered few details about the cause of the accident.

Kishida said of the coast guard crew, “They were filled with a determined sense of mission, and it is extremely regrettable and distressing what has happened to them.” And he expressed his “profound condolences to their surviving families.”

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