msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/3/2005 10:45:00 AM ET 2005-08-03T14:45:00

A jetliner carrying 309 passengers and crew members erupted in flames Tuesday after skidding off a runway while landing in a thunderstorm at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. A government official said it appeared everyone survived, but airport authorities said 24 people suffered minor injuries.

Police said the plane was an Air France A340 from Paris that was trying to land at Canada’s busiest airport when it ran into trouble. There was a storm — with lightning and strong wind gusts — in the area at the time.

Steve Shaw, a vice president of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said at a news conference shortly after the accident that 14 passengers were injured but that there were “no known fatalities.”  The injury count was later increased to 24, with some passengers reportedly suffering from smoke inhalation.

Shaw said there were 297 passengers and 12 crew aboard Air France Flight 358.

Police spokeswoman Diane Cossitt said she heard over police scanners that the passengers and crew were evacuated. “That is my understanding from what I’ve heard, but I’ve got no confirmation one way or the other,” she said.

Toronto Fire Services Capt. David Sheen told CNN that he understood some casualties had been taken to hospitals but had no information on their condition.

Survivors rescued
AM 680, an all-news station, reported live from the scene that there were two explosions on the plane. The station quoted a police official on the nearby freeway as saying two groups of passengers had been evacuated from the jet.

Toronto’s William Osler hospital was placed on “code orange” to prepare for injuries, according to MSNBC.

A row of emergency vehicles lined up behind the wreck, and a fire truck sprayed the flames with water. A government transportation highway camera recorded the burning plane, and the footage was broadcast live on television in Canada and the United States.

A portion of the plane’s wing could be seen jutting from the trees as smoke and flames poured from the middle of its broken fuselage. At one point, another huge plume of smoke emerged from the wreckage, but it wasn’t clear whether it was from an explosion.

Shaw said at the news conference that the plane appeared to have overshot the runway by 200 meters, or about 655 feet.

Next to Canada’s busiest highway
The flaming ruin was next to Highway 401, Canada's busiest, and some cars and trucks stopped on the roadway after the crash. The Toronto airport has been closed to other traffic, with planes diverted to Ottawa and other nearby airports.

Corey Marks said he was at the side of the highway when he watched the Air France plane touch down and crash.

“It was around 4 o’clock, it was getting really dark, and all of a sudden lightning was happening, a lot of rain was coming down,” Marks told CNN. “This plane ... came in on the runway, hits the runway nice. Everything looked good, sounds good and all of a sudden we heard the engines backing up. ... He went straight into the valley and cracked in half.”

Roel Bramar, a passenger on the flight, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that lightning may have struck the plane.

“Just as we landed the lights turned off,” he said. “I’m sure that the bad weather was what was responsible.”

Flight originated in Paris
Flight 358 was scheduled to arrive in Toronto at about 4 p.m. from Charles de Gaulle International Airport near Paris.

“They made an approach in weather that was worse than what they anticipated,” John Wiley, a retired Airbus pilot in Toronto, told CNN.

Thunderstorms create the possibility of wind shear, the sudden, dangerous air currents that can dash an airplane to the ground as it takes off or lands.

Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport handles more than 28 million passengers a year. Located 17 miles west of Toronto in the town of Mississauga, it has three terminals. Air France operates out of Terminal 3.

Past crashes
The last major jet crash in North America was on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people. Safety investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot moving the rudder too aggressively.

Paris-based Air France-KLM Group is the world’s largest airline in terms of revenue. It is the product of the French flagship airline’s acquisition last year of Dutch carrier KLM. For the year ended in March, the company earned $443 million on revenues of $24.1 billion.

Air France-KLM operates a fleet of 375 planes and flies 1,800 daily flights, according to the company’s Web site. In the last fiscal year, it carried 43.7 million passengers to 84 countries around the globe.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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