GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Flight 523 from New York had just touched down and passengers were applauding the pilot’s landing in the South American country Saturday when something suddenly went wrong.
The Boeing 737-800 slid off the end of a rainy runway, crashed through a chain-link fence and broke in half just short of a deep ravine. Yet all 163 people on board survived.
Officials were starting to probe the cause of the crash even as they marveled at the lack of fatalities.
“We must be the luckiest country and luckiest set of people in the world to escape so lightly,” said Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who said more than 30 people were taken to the hospital. Only three of those had to be admitted, for a broken leg, bumps, cuts and bruises.
The Caribbean Airlines plane had left John F. Kennedy International Airport Friday evening and made a stop in Trinidad before landing in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, recalled how applause at the arrival quickly “turned to screams.”
“The plane sped up as if attempting to take off again. It is then that I smelled gas in the cabin and people started to shout and holler,” she said.
The plane came to rest off the end of the 7,400-foot runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, which sits on a ridge in a forested region just south of the oceanfront capital of nearly 300,000 people.
Authorities struggled at first to remove passengers without adequate field lights and other emergency equipment.
The plane stopped a little short of a 200-foot ravine that could have resulted in dozens of fatalities, said President Bharrat Jagdeo. “We are very, very grateful that more people were not injured,” said Jagdeo, who came to the crash site before dawn.