Death toll could reach 9 in Arkansas plane accident, FAA says
June 2, 1999
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- As many as nine people died when an American Airlines flight with 145 people aboard skidded off a rain-slickened runway and broke into pieces, federal investigators said Wednesday. At least 80 were injured, six critically.
"There are fatalities. We don't have a number," said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman William Shumann.
However, a source close to the investigation told CNN said that investigators believe the death toll is between six and nine.
American Airlines spokesman Bob Baker confirmed that the pilot was among those killed in the accident. He did not release the pilot's identity.
Shumann said the plane ran off "the end of runway 4 right, broke into three pieces and came to rest 1,000 feet off the end of the runway." There was no distress call from the cockpit before the landing, he said.
The accident involving American Flight 1420 from Dallas/Fort Worth, a Super MD-80 jetliner, occurred at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday (12:50 a.m. EDT Wednesday).
Flight 1420 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., wind gusts of up to 87 mph were recorded at the airport.
FAA and airline officials said it was too soon to say the accident was caused by the storm.
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.
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.
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.
"We knew it was going to be a hard landing, and we felt the pilot apply the brakes, but you could tell we were just skidding," passenger Carla Koen, 31, told CNN from Arkansas Children's Hospital.
"The plane broke in half, luckily near my row, row 12. It was raining very hard. There is absolutely no doubt that weather was a factor," said Koen, who was treated at a hospital for cuts and bruises,
"There was a huge fire. I could smell the fumes and they were painful to breathe immediately," she said.
Another passenger, Barrett Baber, was returning to Arkansas with other members of Ouachita Baptist University's Ouachita Singers from a tour of Germany when the crash occurred.
"The plane was going so fast, when we hit the ground, we went off the end of the runway," 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.
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.
Plane runs off runway at Arkansas airport, deaths reported
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