TORONTO – They cheered and applauded as the plane was landing, relieved to be on the ground after flying in circles above the airport because of the rough weather. The flight had already had several scary moments, including an apparent power failure that plunged the cabin into a dead, dark calm.
But the cheers quickly faded. The jet thudded onto the runway, then skidded off the pavement moments later, bursting into flames, according to passengers, all of whom miraculously escaped.
"It happened so quickly — it was a little bit like being in a movie," said Gwen Dunlop, one of 309 passengers and crew members who survived the crash of Air France Flight 358 (search) from Paris at Toronto's Pearson International Airport (search) amid stormy weather Tuesday afternoon.
There were no fatalities, only minor bruises from when passengers jumped out of doors and slid down emergency chutes, according to Air France.
"The oxygen masks never came down, the plane was filling up with smoke," said Dunlop. "Some jumped out without the chutes. Then there was the fear of an explosion, so we were just scrambling, people with children."
The plane had skidded into a ravine in a wooded area off Highway 401, the busiest freeway in Canada. Passengers scrambled up the ravine, ducked beneath a bridge, climbed into an abandoned truck, worried the plane would explode.
Cars stopped to pick up passengers, many of whom had lost pieces of clothing, or offer them umbrellas.
The first sign of trouble for the Airbus A340 (search) came a few minutes before landing, as the pilot aborted an initial attempt to land because of heavy winds, rain and lightning.
"The weather is too hard so the captain is going around," passenger Ahmed Alawata recalled a flight attendant saying. Then came the darkness.
About a minute before the plane landed, as it approached Pearson a second time, the lights in the cabin went out, said fellow passenger Olivier Dubois. "Just before touching ground, it was all black in the plane, there was no more light, nothing."
As the wheels touched down, passengers — their nerves already frayed by the darkness inside and outside the cabin, eased only by flashes of lightning — burst into applause.
"Maybe 10 seconds after, it started falling apart; bags were flying down," said Eddie Ho, 19, a college student from South Africa. "An announcement came on, the captain said, "Everything is fine, remain calm in your seats.' That's a crazy announcement, if you ask me."
Ho said people at first were calm and lining up, but once fire from the back of the plane, "people were tripping over each other, climbing over the seats to get to the exit."
He said a flight attendant told him to jump out the front door with no shoot, but it was about a 12-fioot drop. He ran to a second door. It had a damaged chute, but he took it.
"I jumped and fell onto some people," Ho said. "Some people broke their arms or legs."
Some passengers criticized the 12-member crew, saying the flight attendants were not responsive enough; others said they repeatedly cautioned the passengers to remain calm and appeared to be doing their jobs well.
Lauren Langille, 15, was returning from France with an exchange student who was coming to live with her family in Toronto. She said the flight attendants were calm and alert.
"They said for us to evacuate," said the teenager, who was greeted by her father. There was a lot of panic, but the flight attendants were really good at calming you down."
She was just grateful to be alive.
"I was so happy to see people were helping each other," she said. "I appreciate life a lot more and I'm not going to take as much for granted."