GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Flight 523 from New York had just touched down and passengers were applauding the pilot's landing in the South American country Saturday when something suddenly went wrong.
The Boeing 737-800 slid off the end of a rainy runway, crashed through a chain-link fence and broke in half just short of a deep ravine. Yet all 163 people on board survived.
Officials were starting to probe the cause of the crash even as they marveled at the lack of fatalities.
"We must be the luckiest country and luckiest set of people in the world to escape so lightly," said Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who said more than 30 people were taken to the hospital. Only three of those had to be admitted for a broken leg, bumps, cuts and bruises.
The Caribbean Airlines plane had left John F. Kennedy International Airport Friday evening and made a stop in Trinidad before landing in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, recalled how applause at the arrival quickly "turned to screams."
"The plane sped up as if attempting to take off again. It is then that I smelled gas in the cabin and people started to shout and holler," she said.
When the plane crumpled to a stop, Ramsingh said she hopped onto the wing and then onto the dirt road outside the runway fence.
"A fellow who was trying to escape as well mistakenly jumped on my back and that is why my knees are bruised," she said. "So I am in pain, but very thankful to be alive."
Nobody had yet showed up to rescue her, "but a taxi driver appeared from nowhere and charged me $20 to take me to the terminal. I had to pay, but in times of emergencies, you don't charge people for a ride," she said, sitting on a chair in the arrival area surrounded by relatives.
She was returning to her native country for only the second time in 30 years.
Adis Cambridge, 42, of Guyana, said she felt the thump of a hard landing but did not think much of it until seconds later.
"I realized that everything was on top of me, people and bags. I was the second to last person to get off that plane in the dark," she said, surrounded by her two young children who had come to the airport to meet her after a brief holiday in the U.S.
"I hit my head on the roof. It was so scary," she said, and described jumping from the wing to the dirt road below as crews with flashlights and beams from fire engines searched for passengers.
"I thought I would have died. I just started to cry," she said.
The plane came to rest off the end of the 7,400-foot runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, which sits on a ridge in forested region just south of the oceanfront capital of nearly 300,000 people.
Authorities struggled at first to remove passengers without adequate field lights and other emergency equipment.
The plane stopped a little short of a 200-foot ravine that could have resulted in dozens of fatalities, said President Bharrat Jagdeo.
"We are very, very grateful that more people were not injured," said Jagdeo, who came to the crash site before dawn.
George Nicholas, Caribbean Airlines chairman, told reporters that officials with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are scheduled to arrive Sunday in Guyana to take over the investigation. He said investigators from Guyana and Trinidad, the airline's base, will help.
He said the airline is arranging for counselors to meet with passengers.
Authorities temporarily closed the Guyana airport, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded and delaying dozens of flights. The main terminal reopened late Saturday morning to only a couple of small planes, including a LIAT airline bound for Barbados, said Orin Walton, a local representative for the Antigua-based carrier.
The crash of Flight 523 is the worst in recent history in Guyana, and only one of the few serious incidents involving the Trinidad-based airline. It is the single largest carrier in the region, operating at least five daily flights.