NAHA, Japan – A China Airlines jet exploded into flames at an airport in Okinawa after arriving from Taiwan on Monday, but all 165 people aboard escaped alive, officials said. Police said terrorism was not suspected.
All 157 passengers — including two small children— fled the Boeing 737-800 unhurt on inflated emergency slides just minutes before the plane burst into a fireball, Transport Ministry official Akihiko Tamura told reporters.
The aircraft skidded on the tarmac on its way from the runway to the gate after landing, starting a fire that prompted the emergency evacuation, according to China Airlines spokesman Sun Hung-wen. The eight-member crew also safely left the plane, Sun said.
"The fire started when the left engine exploded a minute after the aircraft entered the parking spot," Tamura said, adding that airport traffic controllers had received no report from the pilot indicating anything was wrong.
National broadcaster NHK showed footage of the plane bursting into flames just seconds after what it said was the last crew member escaping from a rear door. The plane's pilot was also visible jumping out of the cockpit window as the plane exploded.
"After the plane landed, there were flames, and I heard explosions a few times, then saw black smoke," airport worker Hideaki Oyadomari told NHK. "We felt the hot air coming our way."
Nobody was injured. Local fire official Hiroki Shimabukuro said two passengers — a 7-year-old girl and a man in his 50s — had been hospitalized because they felt unwell, but not because they were injured. A ground engineer was knocked off his feet by the force of the blast, but was not hurt, the ministry said.
Tamura put the number of passengers at 157, updating the figure of 155 initially provided by China Airlines.
The fire was put out about an hour later, leaving the aircraft charred and mangled.
Several passengers interviewed by NHK said they were suddenly told to use the emergency slides to evacuate as they were preparing to get off the plane after what seemed like an ordinary landing.
Some said they saw smoke and flames entering the cabin and that there was a stampede to exit the plane. Many said they heard explosions minutes after they exited the aircraft.
"I suddenly saw flames beside me, and everybody started rushing to get out," a male passenger told public broadcaster NHK. "People were pushing and shoving in panic," he said.
"I felt the boom of the explosion behind me as soon as I got off," a female passenger said.
The cause of the fire, which reportedly began in one of the engines, was unknown. Japan's National Police Agency said terrorism was not suspected.
"The plane landed safely so we are still checking why there was a fire," said Sun.
Four officials from the Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission arrived at Naha airport on Monday afternoon to investigate the incident.
Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration head Chang Kuo-cheng said authorities ordered China Airlines and its subsidiary Mandarin Airlines to ground their 13 other Boeing 737-800s pending a thorough inspection.
Japanese aviation authorities also ordered an emergency inspection of all Boeing 737-800 planes owned by Japanese air lines, as well as some 737-700 models that carry a similar engine.
"If there was a fire, it might have something to do with an oil leak," Chang said, noting that the exact cause was not determined.
The Okinawa fire is a setback to China Airlines, which in recent years appeared to have improved on a troubled safety record among international carriers.
A China Airlines 747 crashed in 2002 as it flew from Taipei to Hong Kong, leading to 225 deaths, and some 450 people died in China Airlines accidents during the 1990s.