Monday, December 22, 2008

Investigators probe Denver jet accident

Investigators probe Denver jet accident

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Flight data recorders arrived in Washington to help investigators pinpoint the cause of the weekend runway skid of a Continental Airlines jet in Denver that sparked passenger panic and dozens of injuries.

The data recorders were recovered from the damaged Boeing 737-500 on Sunday, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told reporters in Denver.

"There is good data on those recorders," the spokesman said. "The crew conversations are audible ... I understand we should have some overall characterization of what was said in that cockpit."

The spokesman indicated that investigators had interviewed off-duty Continental staff aboard the plane, and Monday spoke with airport rescue and firefighting personnel.

Although the aircraft's captain has not yet been interviewed, "we will do it as soon as we possibly can ... but we want to make sure that he or she is mentally ready and physically ready to be interviewed," the spokesman said.

The Houston-bound plane was carrying 115 passengers and crew when it veered off the runway and caught fire Saturday evening, injuring at least 38 people. The searing heat from the blaze was so hot it melted overhead cabins.

Five passengers on Tuesday remained hospitalized, one of them in serious condition, The Denver Post newspaper reported, without indicating the nature of their injuries.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said the airplane's nose gear collapsed and the right side of the aircraft had sustained "extensive fire damage."

He also said the interior was "quite burned" with the left engine "separated from the aircraft."

Investigators said it was too early to speculate as to the cause of the accident, but that weather and the possibility of engine or brake failure would all be studied.

The people aboard Flight 1404 on Saturday were evacuated via emergency chutes, as crews on scene quickly put out the fire. The plane lay flat on the ground, its landing gear shaved off after diving into a 40-foot (12-meter) ravine.

"We felt the plane veer to the left and my husband was holding my son (age one) and we felt some bumpiness and I thought it was just turbulence," passenger Maria Trejos told CNN.

"And I looked to the side and all of a sudden there was this giant fireball behind my husband's head," added Trejos, who said she is four months pregnant.

"That's when I knew something was wrong and we felt a bump and then I felt like we were airborne for a couple of seconds and then we hit a really big, I -- guess it was when we hit the ravine and then it just stopped."

Passenger Jeb Tilly recalled the skid, which occurred about a third of the way down the runway, as "incredibly violent."

"It was a big lefthand turn and we started bouncing a lot as if you were in the roller coaster, just getting tossed around in your seat. And then there was a lot of silence all of the sudden," he said.

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