Deaths confirmed after airliner skids off runway; 80 injured
June 2, 1999
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- An American Airlines flight with 145 people aboard skidded off a rain-slickened runway, breaking into pieces and bursting into flames. An unknown number of people were killed and at least 80 were injured, six critically.
American Airlines and the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee confirmed that there were fatalities in the crash just before midnight Tuesday but didn't know how many.
"We know that the aircraft broke into several pieces and there was a fire at the rear part of the aircraft," American Airlines spokesman Chris Chiames told CNN. "We know that there were fatalities and survivors," he said.
Flight 1420, a Super MD-80 coming from Dallas, had 139 passengers and six crew members aboard and was due to arrive at 9:41 p.m., the airline said. But it was delayed for more than two hours and arrived just as the storm was hitting Little Rock with lightning, hail and strong winds. At 11:46 p.m., the National Weather Service reported wind gusts of up to 87 mph at the airport.
A spokesman for Little Rock National Airport, Phillip Lanius, said the plane came to a stop near the Arkansas River, which borders the airport.
"It hit an approach light system at the end of the runway on the north side and came to rest short of the river," he said.
"We don't know whether the storm played a role in the accident or not," Lanius said Wednesday morning.
Lanius said emergency personnel had secured the crash site and inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board were expected within hours. He said a team of officials from American Airlines had already arrived.
The deaths are the first on a U.S. commercial airline since 1997.
Twenty-six people were taken to Southwest Regional Medical Center, according to spokeswoman Diane Ficker. Four people are in stable condition with fractures, and some are suffering from smoke inhalation. Ficker said 15 people have been treated and released.
Scott Mosley of St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center said the hospital is treating 14 people, suffering from lacerations, burns and smoke inhalation.
Seven people were taken to Baptist Medical Center and another seven were taken to Baptist North Memorial Center for injuries ranging from bumps to back pain to possible spinal cord injuries, a spokeswoman said.
"Some of them were limping and had bandages on their heads," said Mark Washington, a security guard at Southwest. "They looked shocked and dazed ... aviation fuel, I could smell it on them."
Passengers described a scene of terror, with the jetliner splitting into pieces and bursting into flames after it slid to the edge of the river. Some passengers squeezed one by one through an emergency exit as flames spread toward the back of the plane.
"The plane was going so fast, when we hit the ground, we went off the end of the runway," Barrett Baber said at a theater near the airport where survivors were taken to meet with families and friends. "We hit a huge pole, and it split the plane in half. A fire started at the front of the plane and spread back.
"Once the smoke got too thick, there was nothing we could do. People were screaming 'God, please save us,'" he said.
"We landed, the plane started skidding, and then flames. Flames," added passenger David Stanley, who wasn't hurt. "I remember flames and flames."
Baber, a student at Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia, was returning on the plane with other members of the Ouachita Singers from a tour of Germany.
Baber, seated in row 30, said the flames were within 15 feet of him by the time he got out 30 seconds after the landing. Some passengers getting off the plane found themselves in waist-deep water.
"There was panic, craziness, there were flames," Baber said. "It started at the front, and it was burning back toward us. The emergency door was cracked, and people were able to get out only one at a time."
The deaths are the first on a U.S. commercial airline since December 28, 1997, when a woman was killed aboard a United Airlines 747 when it encountered severe turbulence over the Pacific.
Last year, U.S. aviation officials celebrated a fatality-free year aboard scheduled U.S. commercial flights. U.S. airlines also had one of their safest years ever in 1997, a year after one of the deadliest on record.
There were 342 deaths on major American air carriers in 1996, which included 230 people who died in the explosion of TWA flight 800 leaving New York and 110 who were killed when a ValuJet plunged into the Florida Everglades.
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