TORONTO – A jetliner carrying 309 people skidded off a runway while landing in a thunderstorm at Toronto's Pearson International Airport (search), sliding into a ravine and bursting into flames. All passengers and crew members survived the fiery crash, jumping out of the plane before the fire broke out.
Fourteen people suffered minor injuries in the 4:03 p.m. crash landing of Air France Flight 358 (search) from Paris to Toronto.
The crash took place in a wooded area next to one of Canada's busiest highways, and some survivors said that passengers had scrambled up to the road to catch rides with passing cars. The plane overran the runway by 200 yards, said Steve Shaw, a vice president of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority.
Olivier Dubois, a passenger who was sitting in the rear of the A340 Airbus (search), recalls the feeling in the cabin as the aircraft touched down. "The plane touched ground and we felt it was going off road and hitting a ravine and that's when we thought that was really the end of it," he said. "It was really, really scary. Everyone was panicking."
"People were screaming and ... jumping as fast as possible and running everywhere, because our biggest fear is that it would blow up," Dubois told CTV.
Dubois and other passengers said the power went off shortly before landing, perhaps after the plane was hit by lighting. But he said he did not expect a crash landing and that there was no warning from the captain.
"It was very very fast," he said. "As soon as the plane stopped, they immediately opened the side of the plane where we couldn't see anything and they told us to jump."
He said some passengers scrambled onto nearby Highway 401, where cars stopped, picked them up and took them to the airport. Two busloads of passengers were taken to an airport medical center.
Passenger Gwen Dunlop was one of those who fled the plane after the crash. She told The Associated Press the pouring rain, lightning and thunder added to the drama as passengers exited the plane.
"We were just thrown into the weather," she said. "We were all trying to go up a hill; it was all mud and we lost our shoes. We were just scrambling, people with children."
Gay Bopaul said her husband called her on a cell phone shortly after the crash, taking shelter under a bridge. He said the passengers were all sharing their mobile phones so they could call their families.
Roel Bramar, who was in the back of the plane, said he used an escape chute to get out of the plane.
"We had a hell of a roller coaster coming down the ravine," Bramar told a cable news network.
Bramar and Dubois both said the power went off shortly before landing, perhaps after the plane was hit by lighting.
Just moments after the crash, a portion of the plane's wing could be seen jutting from the trees as smoke and flames poured from the middle of its broken fuselage.
A row of emergency vehicles lined up behind the wreck, and a fire truck sprayed the flames with water. A government transportation highway camera recorded the burning plane, and the footage was broadcast live on television in Canada and the United States.
Relatives and friends were taken to the Sheraton Hotel at the airport and asked to wait there until the passengers joined them.
Several hours later, passengers in red blankets were taken to the hotel to meet with their loved ones and friends. Some were distressed that they had to go through customs before they were reunited.
Rayed Hantash said his brother, 25-year-old Mohammed Hantash, was on the flight and called him on his cell phone immediately after the crash to tell him he was fine.
"As the plane stopped, they jumped off and made their way across to the highway," Hantash said. "I'm going to give him a good hug and good kiss and take him home."
Airbus spokeswoman Barbara Kracht said the A340 has never crashed before in its 13 years of commercial service.
Chris Yates, an aviation specialist with Jane's Transport magazine, said the A340 is a very popular "workhorse" among carriers serving Asian and trans-Atlantic routes, with a very good safety record.
Environment Canada had issued a severe weather alert earlier in the day, saying its radar showed a rapidly developing thunderstorm with winds up to about 60 mph. Shaw said the airport had been under a "red alert" since noon, which indicates the potential for lightning, but does not prevent planes from landing or taking off.
Although modern airliners are safer than ever, Yates said, extreme conditions can still be dangerous, especially during takeoff and landing.
"A thunderstorm can happen anywhere — it comes down to the judgment of the air traffic controller and the skill of the pilot to determine whether it's appropriate to land or to divert elsewhere," Yates said.
Tuesday's airplane crash in Toronto came exactly 20 years after an American disaster that focused renewed attention to wind shear, a natural phenomenon that can make airplanes drop out of the sky.
While the cause of the Toronto crash has not yet been determined, the fact that it happened during a thunderstorm raises the possibility of wind shear.
The 1985 airline crash at Dallas-Forth Worth airport, which killed more than 137 people, made dealing with wind shear "a national imperative" for the U.S. federal government, said Larry Cornman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
Since then, he said Tuesday, systems to detect wind shear have been installed at almost all major airports in the United States. Cornman said the Canadian government investigated installing such systems during the 1990s, but added he did not know how many have been installed.
Wind shear is a sudden change in wind speed or direction. The most dangerous kind, called a microburst, is caused by air descending from a thunderstorm.
The last major jet crash in North America was on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people. Safety investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot moving the rudder too aggressively.
The A340 is part of the A330/A340 family of six related aircraft, all sharing the same frame, manufactured by Airbus. The craft owned and flown by Air France is the A340-300.