KINGSTON, Jamaica – More than 150 people onboard an American Airlines flight to Jamaica were lucky to be alive Wednesday after their rain-drenched plane ripped apart and skidded within 15 feet of collapsing into the roiled waters of the Caribbean Sea.
The jet, carrying 154 passengers and crew on a late-night flight from Miami, slid across a runway in Jamaica's capital in heavy rain after it crash-landed Tuesday, injuring more than 40 people.
A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board is traveling to Jamaica to help investigate into the crash. Panicked passengers screamed and baggage burst from overhead bins as Flight 331 from Miami careened down the runway in Kingston, one passenger said.
The impact cracked the fuselage, crushed the left landing gear and separated both engines from the Boeing 737-800, airline spokesman Tim Smith said.
Crews evacuated dazed and bloodied passengers onto a beach from a cabin that smelled of smoke and jet fuel, passengers said. Rain poured through the plane's broken roof, one said.
Some 44 people were taken to hospitals with broken bones and back pains and four were seriously hurt, airport and Jamaican government officials said. American Airlines said two people were admitted to the hospital and nobody suffered life-threatening injuries.
Heavy turbulence on the way to Jamaica had forced the crew to halt the beverage service three times before giving up, Pilar Abaurrea of Keene, New Hampshire, told The Associated Press by phone. The pilot warned of more turbulence just before landing but said it likely wouldn't be much worse, she said.
"All of a sudden, when it hit the ground, the plane was kind of bouncing. Someone said the plane was skidding and there was panic," she said.
U.S. investigators will analyze whether the plane should have been landing in such bad weather, Smith said, adding that other planes had landed safely in the heavy rain.
Passenger Natalie Morales Hendricks told NBC's "Today" that the plane began to skid upon landing and "before I knew it, everything was black and we were crashing."
"Everybody's overhead baggage started to fall. Literally, it was like being in a car accident. People were screaming, I was screaming," she said.
"There was smoke and debris everywhere," after the plane halted, she said. "It was a mess. Everybody could smell jet fuel."
Passenger Robert Mais told The Gleaner newspaper of Jamaica that he had heard the engine's reverse throttle but that the plane didn't seem to slow as it skittered down the runway.
The plane came to a halt about 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters) from the Caribbean Sea and passengers walked along the beach to be picked up by a bus, Mais said. Rain came through the roof of the darkened jet and baggage from the overhead compartments was strewn about the cabin, he said.
The plane originated at Reagan National Airport in Washington and took off from Miami International Airport at 8:52 p.m. and arrived in Kingston at 10:22 p.m. It was carrying 148 passengers and a crew of six, American said. The majority of those aboard were Jamaicans coming home for Christmas, Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz said.
Smith said there were two "significant" cracks in the fuselage, and the engines are designed to separate from the wings during an accident as a safety measure.
The airport reopened early Wednesday after officials had delayed flights because of concerns that the plane's tail might be hindering visibility.
Some 400 passengers waited for their flights to be cleared for takeoff, Security Minister Dwight Nelson told Radio Jamaica.
Heavy rains that have pelted Jamaica's eastern region for four days are expected to dissipate by Thursday. Authorities said the rains washed away a 7-year-old girl on Tuesday and led to a bus accident in which two people died.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.