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Denver Jet Crash Investigators Focus on Brakes, Crosswind

An aborted takeoff, complicated by braking difficulties amid a stiff crosswind, apparently caused a Continental Airlines jetliner to veer off a runway in Denver, buckling the fuselage, sparking a fire and injuring more than three dozen onboard, according to people familiar with early data gathered by investigators.

After recovering the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders, federal investigators were organizing teams Sunday at Denver International Airport, where the wrecked Boeing 737 sat in a ravine with its left engine and most of its landing gears ripped off. Preliminary indications point to braking problems aboard the Houston-bound jetliner that may have caused the accident Saturday night, these people said.

Neither investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board nor airline officials have commented on likely causes of the crash of Continental Flight 1404, which came as the holiday travel season moved into high gear.

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People familiar with the matter, however, said preliminary data and information from air-traffic controllers indicate the twin-engine jet was accelerating for takeoff when the cockpit crew decided to stop the plane from becoming airborne. When pilots applied the brakes, the speeding plane was pulled to the left side of the runway, careened across some taxiways and smashed into a ravine, about 200 yards from one of the airport's fire stations, according to these people.

It isn't clear what prompted the crew to abandon the takeoff in cold but clear weather around 6 p.m. Saturday. The Denver runway was free of ice or snow Saturday, according to eyewitnesses and people familiar with the investigation, but rubber skid marks suggest the plane began veering to the left early in its roll toward takeoff.

Over the years, engine malfunctions and problems with landing gears or blown tires have accounted for about half of all aborted takeoffs globally, and they are among the leading probable causes for Saturday's accident, according to people familiar with the investigation.

A likely contributing factor, according to investigators, was a stiff crosswind reported at more than 30 miles per hour that would have made it more difficult to keep the plane rolling down the center of the runway while simultaneously trying to stop. Interviews with the pilots later this week will help investigators untangle the reasons for the accident.

There were no fatalities among the 115 passengers and crew. Some passengers used emergency chutes while others clambered down wings in what they described as a chaotic scene in the smoke-filled ravine. Firefighters were able to quickly douse flames on the right side of the plane, though they stayed on the scene to mop up minor flare-ups through early Sunday.

So-called runway excursions or overruns are rare events in the U.S., with pilots receiving regular training on how to slow down aircraft in all types of weather and runway conditions if they decide against a takeoff. But such overruns are an increasing problem outside the U.S., ranking as one of the top global causes of commercial-airplane accidents in recent years.

The twin-engine Boeing 737, a longtime workhorse of U.S. and foreign fleets, is designed to become airborne and climb safely on a single engine. Investigators will look at, among other things, how fast the plane was moving when pilots aborted the takeoff. They will also try to determine whether automatic braking systems were engaged, and whether such systems as the engine-thrust reversers or panels on top of the wings were deployed or may have failed to operate correctly to stop the aircraft.

Some passengers told of their harrowing experience escaping from the burning aircraft. On Twitter, an online social-networking site, one passenger posted a thread shortly after the accident. "We were in the middle of a normal takeoff when suddenly we veered off," wrote the passenger, who identified himself as Mike Wilson of Denver. Continental neither identified nor confirmed the names of passengers.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.