The flight from Paris had been a breeze for the students, businessmen and vacationers, until Air France Flight 358 started its final descent — and it suddenly became clear a furious thunderstorm was enveloping the packed Airbus A340.
As crewmembers made landing announcements, passengers like Caroline Diezyn, Olivier Dubois and Ahmed Alawata made sure their seat belts were tight against the turbulence. They stared out the windows but saw only blackness in the afternoon sky.
For the 297 passengers and 12 crew, a harrowing landing in Toronto on Tuesday would end in a textbook evacuation. Most were out in just 52 chilling seconds, and no one was killed. Some credited pilots who fought the raging weather surrounding Pearson International Airport, which was on “red alert” status because of the electrical storm.
In the midst of Flight 358’s first approach to an east-west runway, the plane abruptly pulled up. A flight attendant announced that bad weather forced the aborted landing. “The captain is going around,” Alawata recalled her saying as the plane circled.
When it descended again, only an occasional flash of lightning illuminated the sky.
In the cockpit, pilots received final direction from air traffic control.
“Air France 358 ... approach 24 left.”
“24 left,” the Airbus replied.
“Air France 358 reduce speed now to 160 knots (184 mph).”
“Reducing to 160 ...”
“Air France 358 slow to your final approach speed.”
The flight’s path closed on the runway.
‘What is that?’
Sitting in the back, returning from a wedding in France, Veronica Laudes, 36, looked out the left window.
“What is that?” she said, spotting “a little line of smoke.”
It was then — about 4 p.m., as the jetliner neared touchdown — that the lights in the cabin went out. “It was all black in the plane,” Dubois said. “There was no more light, nothing.”
Seconds later, as the wheels touched down, passengers applauded in relief. But the landing was hard, and in an instant, screams replaced the cheers.
The plane was not slowing down.
“We just kept going so fast,” said 18-year-old Diezyn, returning home to London, Ontario, after a monthlong vacation in France.
“We bumped once, and then we kept bumping,” she said, describing how the Airbus careered down the runway. “The lights went off and the oxygen masks came down.”
Skidding 200 yards off the runway, the jetliner came to rest in a ravine and burst into flames.
Plane came apart
Bags were “flying down” from the overhead bins, and the plane was coming apart, said South African student Eddie Ho, 19.
The flight crew responded immediately, said Dominique Pajot, 54, a businessman from Paris, who was sitting in first-class. “They were very quick to get up and open the doors and help people and calm them.” Ho recalled an announcement from the cabin, urging all to remain calm.
But fire in the rear of the plane caused alarm, and passengers charged for the exits.
“People were tripping over each other, climbing over the seats to get to the exit,” Ho said.
At a front door where Ho said he was directed to go, there was no chute to slide down and the drop was about 12 feet. He ran to a second door. It had a damaged chute, but he took it.
“I jumped and fell onto some people,” Ho said. “Some people broke their arms or legs.”
“Stewardesses started pushing everyone out,” said Diezyn, who said she jumped down a chute in the back of the plane. She cut her legs on the tall, sharp grass in the wet field where they landed.
Many passengers lost pieces of their clothing when they jumped from the plane; others took off rain-soaked clothes and exchanged them for warm blankets.
Within 52 seconds, three-quarters of those on board were out of the plane.
The evacuation of everyone — more than 300 people — took less than two minutes, with a co-pilot the last to leave the flaming wreckage, airport Fire Chief Mike Figliola said.
Short of a miracle?
“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” said a stunned Jean Lapierre, Canada’s transportation minister, referring to the fact that nobody died.
But while officials and others call the survival of all 309 people a miracle, aviation and safety experts said Wednesday that most passengers do escape air disasters, especially accidents that occur on the ground.
“There is this myth out there that says if you’re involved in a catastrophic aircraft accident the odds are extremely low. That’s inaccurate. The odds are extremely high,” said Mark Rosenker, the acting chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The board investigates aircraft accidents and has sent experts to Canada to help examine the four engines on the ill-fated Airbus A340-300. The U.S. team will also look at evacuation procedures and other reasons why all 297 passengers and 12 crew escaped.
Air France and airport rescuers credit the entire flight crew for managing the disaster calmly and professionally.
“The evacuation probably took two minutes maximum,” said Toronto airport fire chief Mike Figliola. “They (the crew) did a great job. They are trained to get the people off.”
Study: 95 percent in crashes survive
A U.S. safety board analysis of 568 crashes (71 of them fatal) between 1983-2000 found that 95 percent of passengers, or 51,000 people, survived. In a closer study of 26 notable crashes — those that included fire, serious injury or substantial damage or destruction of the plane — more than half of 2,700 occupants made it out alive. In Toronto, passengers beat those odds entirely with 100 percent survival.
Unsurvivable crashes usually always involve mid-air explosions or open-water accidents. Both of those factored into the TWA Flight 800 disaster in 1996 off New York. A Swissair MD-11 also crashed into the Atlantic off Nova Scotia in 1998 because of an onboard fire.
But in a ground crash similar to that in Toronto, an American Airlines DC-9 ran off the runway in Little Rock, Ark., during a violent rainstorm in June 1999. The jet struck a light fixture, slid into a ditch and caught fire. The captain and 10 others were killed, but 134 people survived. And in March 2000, 43 of 142 people aboard a Southwest Airlines 737 were hurt when the plane ran off the runway in Burbank, Calif.
Charles Eastlake, a pilot and a professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, also credited passengers aboard the Air France flight. “In interviews, people seemed calm and collected. The mental attitude makes a gigantic difference in how quickly the plane gets evacuated,” he said.
Yasmin Ladak, a passenger, told CNN that passengers reached for their belongings and headed for the exits. “Everyone’s instinct was to get off the plane,” she said.
Ellie Larson, a flight attendant with United Airlines and an executive with the world’s largest flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants, said passengers as a whole are more responsive to pre-flight instructions from the crew and more alert since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijack attacks.
“It’s very evident that people are far more cooperative and far more serious,” Larson said.