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Canada crash recorders being examined

Five groups investigating Air France accident

FLIGHT 358 PASSENGERS

The nationalities of the 297 passengers and 12 crew members who survived the crash
of Flight 358 Tuesday in Toronto.
-- 101 French citizens
-- 104 Canadian citizens
-- 19 Italian citizens
-- 14 U.S. citizens
-- 8 Indian citizens
-- 7 British citizens

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TORONTO, Ontario (CNN) -- Canada's Transportation Safety Board recovered the flight data and voice recorders -- the so-called "black boxes" -- of Air France Flight 358 Wednesday. The plane crashed Tuesday after landing at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

The recorders have been sent to Ottawa to have their contents transcribed, said the safety board's chief of investigations operations Real Levasseur.

He said the recorders suffered some fire damage from the crash, "but we should be able to recover the information."

Levasseur said the data should help determine what caused the jet to crash and burst into flames during its landing.

In addition to the Canadian board, teams from France, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, plane manufacturer Airbus and Air France are also investigating.

All 297 passengers and 12 crew members onboard survived.

The airport, Toronto's biggest and busiest, had been under a lightning alert for three hours when Flight 358 was attempting its approach, said Brian Lackey, chief engineer and vice president of operations for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

A fire department spokesman said Wednesday that it took his crew 12 hours to extinguish the flames from the crash. By then, aerial photographs of the accident site showed the cockpit and wings largely intact, but the cabin reduced to a blackened, metal skeleton.

Don Enns, Transportation Safety Board of Canada chief investigator, said Wednesday it is too early to say if weather was the main culprit.

"We're just beginning. We're not going to rule anything out," said Enns, adding that 25 investigators have been assigned to the crash.

Enns refused to estimate how long the investigation would take.

Crew praised

Air France Chairman and CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta credited the crew for preventing fatalities.

"Some newspapers in France, Europe and Canada are talking about a miracle, and it's true that it looks like one," he said. "But I personally believe it was, above all, the personal skill of the crew that prevented the accident from being a major disaster."

About three-quarters of the passengers were able to deplane within 52 seconds, the time it took for the first fire crew to reach the jet, said John McDougall, deputy chief of the Mississauga Fire Department.

The full evacuation of the plane is estimated to have taken two minutes.

Spinetta said that he and 33 other Air France management officials had come to Toronto "to provide every possible assistance to the passengers and crew on yesterday's flight."

Fifteen of the 43 people who had been taken to hospitals remained there. "Apparently, none of those have any life-threatening injuries," Spinetta said.

Airport was on red alert

Tuesday's severe thunderstorms had prompted authorities to declare a red alert and cancel or divert 550 flights, said John Kaldeway, president and CEO of the airports authority.

The storm, Lackey said, "was something we haven't seen here for some time... It was definitely different, much more severe."

Airport officials said the decision on whether to land under such conditions is the pilot's call.

Air France said the co-pilot had described the touchdown as normal but said that he could not keep the plane on the runway. He said the plane was encountering a big storm with sleet and high winds at the time.

Passengers initially responded to the landing with applause, said traveler Eddie Ho, who was heading to Toronto for a vacation.

"Ten seconds later, basically, all hell broke loose," Ho told CNN Wednesday. "The plane didn't stop at all. It didn't even slow down."

Instead, the jet continued down the runway and, when it ran out of asphalt, skidded another 200 meters before plunging into a ravine, he said. "The plane shook so violently, the ceilings fell apart, the onboard carriage fell off. I can still remember. Everything was black, no lighting, no electricity."

He added, "I can actually hear right now the shouting of the women and the children. It's just terrible."

When the plane finally came to a rest, "everyone tried to get off," Ho said.

"When I jumped out, I fell on some people. I remember a gentleman fell on top of me," Ho said.

Falling around and on top of the passengers was luggage being thrown by other passengers, he said.

Ho said he and another passenger carried a third who had broken his leg in the fall toward nearby 401 Highway.

"We were halfway there, and we heard the explosion behind us." (More accounts)

The Airbus A340 was less than six years old, Air France said, and had 28,418 hours of service with 3,711 take-offs and landings. Its last inspection was on July 5 at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, the airline said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the airport had returned to normal operations and was working to reduce its backlog.

CNN's Marie Lora contributed to this report

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