Wreckage Examined as Denver Jet Crash Investigators Focus on Wind, Brakes

Federal officials examined the burned wreckage Monday of a passenger jet that veered off a Denver runway and caught fire over the weekend, as the Wall Street Journal reported that the investigation will focus on an aborted takeoff and braking difficulties amid a stiff crosswind.

The twin-engine Boeing 737-500 was left in a shallow, snow-covered ravine where it came to rest after its aborted take-off Saturday at Denver International Airport.

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National Transportation Safety Board officials wanted to make use of scarce daylight hours to examine the wreck, measure skid marks and then conduct their first interviews of the pilots.

"We will be looking at the braking system as well as the engines and the meteorological conditions at the time of the accident," Robert Sumwalt, a spokesman for the NTSB, told FOX News. "All of those things and many, many more will be considered as a part of our investigation."

Both the captain and the first officer had clean safety records with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. He wouldn't release their names.

Flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered and sent for examination to Washington, D.C. It appeared both were in good condition, the NTSB 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, sources close to the investigation told the Journal.

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, sources told the paper.

"Right about the time I expected us to normally leave the ground, the plane sort of shimmied a little bit," passenger Mike Wilson told FOX News.

The accident forced the 115 passengers and crew aboard Continental Airlines flight 1404 to flee through emergency exits as the plane burned.

"For the most part, people were staying calm enough to keep themselves under control and not really start trampling each other or really pushing towards the exits," Wilson told FOX News.

Thirty-eight people suffered injuries including broken bones, although officials weren't sure whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation.

The jet had shed its left engine and both main landing gears, and caught fire. The entire right side of the jet was burned, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats.

The Denver runway was free of ice and snow Saturday, eyewitnesses told the Journal, but rubber skid marks suggested the plane began veering to the left early in its roll toward takeoff.

Investigators told the paper a likely contributing factor 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.

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.

Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport, said it was a miracle "that everybody survived the impact and the fire."

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, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.

"No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind" before Flight 1404 tried to lift off, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor 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.

A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, Davis said. There were 110 passengers and five crew members aboard, officials said.

Passenger 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.

Another passenger, 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 Sumwalt didn't know whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation.

Many passengers from the flight arrived in Houston, its original destination, on Sunday afternoon, some clearly injured, the Houston Chronicle reported.

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.

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.

"Progress will be made by the end of the day when our go-teams get out and have a chance to start documenting the wreckage and skid marks,” he told FOX News.

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.

"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," said Larry Kellner, Continental's chairman and chief executive officer.

The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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