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Crash landing investigated

Thu., Dec. 24, 2009

The cracked fuselage of American Airlines Flight 331, which crash-landed in Jamaica, is seen on Wednesday.  (Associated Press)
The cracked fuselage of American Airlines Flight 331, which crash-landed in Jamaica, is seen on Wednesday. (Associated Press)

Plane arriving from Miami slid off Jamaican runway

MIAMI – While crash investigators began combing through debris to determine what caused an American Airlines flight to overshoot the runway in Jamaica, aviation experts on Wednesday pointed out just how fortunate the 160 people aboard were.

“The people in this crash in Jamaica were extremely lucky,” said Andrew Maloney, a New York aviation attorney. “If you don’t get a post-crash explosion or fire you’ve got a good shot at surviving something like this.”

Maloney said passengers’ good fortune stemmed from a landing that didn’t result in the Boeing 737-800 colliding – nose first – with, say, a wall or the ground. He added that the pilot might have been able to slow down the airplane’s speed significantly, preventing it from landing in the nearby ocean or road.

The plane cracked in half, both engines broke off from the impact, and the left main landing gear collapsed. Government officials Wednesday recovered the flight data recorder.

The accident happened about 10:22 p.m. Tuesday, after a takeoff from Miami at 8:52 p.m. While landing during heavy rain, the flight skidded off the runway at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston and stopped at the ocean’s edge. Of the 154 passengers and six crew members, 92 were taken to hospitals and 13 were admitted, officials said. Most sustained cuts and bruises, and there were no reported fatalities.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board landed in Jamaica Wednesday to assist the island’s government with the probe.

Two Miami-Dade passengers aboard the Jamaica-bound flight described it as a bumpy ride with turbulence beginning 30 minutes after takeoff.

As the plane neared Kingston, Gary Mouttet was in the bathroom when a crew member pounded on the door, ordering him to return to his seat.

Mouttet said he sensed the plane was coming in too high.

“I knew it was going to be a hard landing when the back wheel hit the ground,” said Mouttet, 45, a Coral Gables businessman. “And then the pilot dropped the nose pretty hard. I think he realized the runway was running out on him.”

As the reverse thrusters came on, Mouttet saw the terminal – which is at the end of the runway – glide by. He turned to Camille Chee-Awai, 46, also from Miami-Dade, and said: “Brace yourself. This is not going to be good.”

Seconds later, the plane burst through a fence at the end of the runway, pounding into a ditch.

“I envisioned ending up in the ocean,” Mouttet said. “If we would have ended up in the ocean, we would have drowned. Once we came to a stop, I smelled gas. I smelled aviation fuel everywhere.”

After crew members opened the doors, passengers began exiting down an inflatable slide. Seeing smoke and fearing an explosion, they ran in the gusty rain until they reached a road – and a bus pulling up.


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