Drivers watch as an Air France plane burns after running off the runway during a landing at Pearson International Airport. More than 300 people escaped with their lives, some stumbling to a nearby highway to flag down passing commuters, after the jet skidded off the runway and burst into flames during a fierce thunderstorm at the airport. (CP photo/Jorge Rios)
INDEPTH: PLANE FIRE AT PEARSON AIRPORT|
CBC News Online | Updated November 16, 2005
It's been described as a miracle. An Air France flight comes to a violent halt in a ravine, 200 metres past the end of a runway, its tail on fire. All 309 people on board get out safely. There are no serious injuries.
Airport officials had instituted a Red Alert at noon on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2005, because of severe weather in the surrounding area. That prevented most flights from taking off during the afternoon. Incoming flights were permitted to land, if conditions allowed.
Among them was Air France Flight 358, carrying 297 passengers and 12 crew members on a flight from Paris. It had left Charles De Gaulle Airport at 1:32 p.m. Paris time and was due to land in Toronto at 3:35 p.m. EDT.
The flight was uneventful until the final approach to Toronto. A severe thunderstorm kept the plane circling over Toronto for 15 minutes.
Finally, the pilot felt confident enough to take the plane down on runway 24L in the southern part of the airport.
Passenger Johnny Abedrabblo said he didn't notice any signs of trouble until after the Airbus 340-300 touched down.
"As soon as we landed, we kind of had a normal landing, where people started clapping," said the Toronto man. "But then we started hearing these noises like when you have a flat tire. I think the landing gear – something happened to the landing gear."
There was something terribly wrong with the landing. More than 2700 metres of runway – enough to handle the biggest passenger aircraft in the world – was not enough for Air France Flight 358.
The plane came to a skidding halt 200 metres past the end of the runway, with the nose pointing down a ravine and the tail visible from Canada's busiest highway – the 401 – just south of the crash scene.
There were flames and thick black smoke pouring out of the tail.
The scene was somewhat similar to the last major accident at this airport. In 1978, an Air Canada jet skidded off a runway and into the same ravine after the pilot aborted a takeoff.
Two people died in that accident.
This time it was different. As fire ate its way through Air France Flight 358, flight attendants did exactly as they were trained to do – they got passengers quickly and safely out of a dangerous situation.
They had precious few minutes to move 297 passengers out through the emergency exits before they might be overcome by toxic fumes.
Airport officials say emergency response teams were on site within 52 seconds.
"By that time, approximately three-quarters of the passengers had come down the chute and into the field," said Mike Figliola, fire chief with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.
The plane was emptied of passengers and crew within two minutes. The rescue operation turned into the job of putting out the fire.
"Fifty yards away from the aircraft, my face was burning," said Figliola. "The fire was very, very intense."
Sixteen hours after the accident, which occurred at 4:03 p.m. EDT, the wreckage was still smouldering, he said. The plane had broken into three pieces.
On Monday, Aug. 8, 2005, lead investigator Réal Levasseur told reporters that the aircraft appeared to have been working as it should have.
"Post landing, as the aircraft wheels touch down, we see the brakes applied right away, we see the spoilers come up to slow down the plane, we see reverse thrusters fully deployed," Levasseur told reporters as he released more data from the Airbus 340-300 jet's flight recorders.
"It seems that there was nothing wrong with that aircraft."
Three days earlier, Levasseur told reporters the plane landed further down the runway than it should have – by about 500 metres.
On Nov. 16, 2005, the TSB issued an interim report on its investigation into the crash. It found no mechanical problem with the aircraft.
"To date, investigators have not found significant anomalies of the aircraft systems. Review of digital flight data recorder (DFDR) data has not revealed any system troubles or malfunctions. Based on a physical examination of the wreckage combined with a follow-up detailed DFDR review of parameters, no problems were detected with the flight controls, spoilers, tires and brakes, or thrust reversers. The flight controls functioned as expected, spoilers were deployed on touchdown, the tires and braking system worked as per design, and the thrust reversers were found in the deployed position."
The board said there is still "a considerable amount of investigative and analytical work to be done …. The analysis of the available factual information is still under way; consequently, it would be inappropriate to speculate as to the findings of the Board on this occurrence."
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