DENVER – It was a miracle that no one was killed when an airliner veered sharply off a runway during takeoff, burst into flames and nearly broke apart, firefighters said Sunday.
There was no official word on the possible cause of the crash of Continental Flight 1404 at Denver International Airport, which injured 38 people. Flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered and appeared to be in good condition, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
The weather was clear but cold when the plane attempted to take off for Houston around 6:20 p.m. Saturday. Winds at the airport were 31 mph, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.
"No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind" before Flight 1404 tried to lift off, Gregor said.
The entire right side of the Boeing 737-500 was burned in the Saturday evening accident, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats. Investigators said the plane's left engine was ripped away along with all the landing gear.
"It was a miracle ... that everybody survived the impact and the fire," said Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport. "It was just amazing."
A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, Davis said.
Davis, one of the firefighters who rushed to the scene, said the plane came to a rest about 200 yards from one of the airport's four fire stations. Passengers walked out of the ravine in 24-degree cold and crowded inside the station, he said.
The 110 passengers and five crew members left the plane on emergency slides, officials said.
Passenger Emily Pellegrini told The Denver Post that as the plane headed down the runway, "It was bumpy, then it was bumpier, then it wasn't bumpy."
Gabriel Trejos told KUSA-TV in Denver that the plane buckled toward its middle and that the seats felt like they were closing in on him, his pregnant wife and his 13-month-old son, who was on his lap. His knees were bruised from the seat in front of him.
Maria Trejos told KUSA that there was an explosion and that the right side of the plane, where they were sitting, became engulfed in flames. The family used an emergency exit and slid down the wing of the jet to the ground.
The injuries included broken bones, but Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, didn't know whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation. Two people were initially listed in critical condition at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver but were upgraded Sunday, one to serious and one to fair, spokeswoman Tonya Ewers said.
Many passengers from the flight arrived in Houston, its original destination, on Sunday afternoon, some clearly injured, the Houston Chronicle reported online Sunday.
The gate where relatives waited at Bush Intercontinental Airport was blocked off from the rest of the terminal. One woman limped off the flight with red-rimmed eyes; another was in a wheelchair, wearing a neck brace, the newspaper reported.
A young boy was taken by stretcher straight to an elevator.
The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to have gotten airborne, city aviation manager Kim Day said.
Investigators said Sunday evening that work would start again at daybreak. Sumwalt said the damaged plane would remain for several days in the 40-foot-deep ravine where it landed. That runway will remain closed during the investigation, he said.
The ravine in which the plane came to rest sits between runways. Flat land is rare on the plains abutting the Rocky Mountains near Denver, and the airport was built on gently rolling country. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.
Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation. He declined to comment on whether Boeing had any indication of possible problems with the 737-500 jetliner.
Larry Kellner, Continental's chairman and chief executive officer, said his airline was doing all it could for the passengers, crew and their families.
"We will also do whatever we can to learn the cause of this accident so that we can prevent a recurrence at Continental or at any other airline," he said.