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Passengers who walked away from the fiery Aeroméxico crash are thankful to be alive but a safety expert on Wednesday said it was “no accident” that everyone aboard the jet survived.
The aircraft attempted to take off in heavy rain during a storm Tuesday afternoon in Durango, Mexico, but crashed into grass near the runway and skidded to a stop before catching fire.
None of the 103 people on board — 99 passengers, two pilots and two flight attendants — was killed.
Authorities said 49 people were hospitalized. Among them was a group from the Chicago area, including a priest.
The plane's pilot, Capt. Carlos Meyran, suffered the most serious injury: a lesion that required surgery. Some survivors had burns on a quarter of their bodies, according to a local health official.
"I feel blessed and grateful to God," said Jackeline Flores, who escaped with her daughter as the Embraer E190 quickly filled with smoke and flames.
Aeroméxico Flight 2431 was bound for Mexico City when the plane was rocked by a gust of wind that caused it to plunge suddenly, said the governor of Durango, José Rosas Aispuro.
Both of its engines were knocked off and it plowed through scrubland before coming to a halt 328 yards from the runway, he told reporters.
David Gleave, a U.K.-based crash investigator and air safety consultant, said the absence of fatalities reflected the relatively low speed of the impact, as well as decades of work in improving aircraft design.
“It’s not a miracle,” he said. “This is a design-based accident that should be survivable. We’ve worked long and hard in the industry to ensure that an event like this is something that people can walk away from, that the seats don't slide forward on impact, that limbs are protected. The safety of passengers is no accident.”
He added: “The grassy area you see around an airport is not just wasteland, it is deliberately kept free of obstacles such as ditches or power lines. It is designed to allow a landing that people can walk away from.”
All modern planes are certified to be evacuated within 90 seconds.
Gleave said investigators would probably focus on the strong winds, heavy rain and marble-sized hail that lashed the area around the time of the crash.
“The E190 flight deck is very modern and has all the bells and whistles that will shout at the pilots if there’s a mechanical problem or they make a mistake configuring the plane for takeoff,” he said.
"It was pouring rain — honestly I thought, 'Why in the world are we even taking off?'"
“Thunderstorms are harder to cope with, especially if there is low cloud cover. If the wind changes suddenly just as the pilots reach V1 [takeoff speed] then it can catch them out. Or it could be that hailstones caused the engines to ingest a huge amount of water.”
Aeroméxico chief executive Andres Conesa said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash, but praised the timely reaction of crew and passengers in helping everyone to escape.
He said the passengers included 88 adults, nine children and two babies. A State Department official said Wednesday that 65 U.S. citizens were aboard the plane.
Dorelia Rivera of Elmwood Park, Illinois, was with a group of people who suffered burns and broken bones.
“We took off — it was pouring rain — honestly, I thought, ‘Why in the world are we even taking off?’” she told NBC Chicago from a hospital. “Within a couple minutes the plane just started shaking. We heard a loud noise behind us, and the next thing we knew it was starting to smoke and fire.”
She said people were clamoring to get off the plane. She grabbed the only two things she could: her daughter’s hand and the medicine the child needs to stay alive, she said.
“Somebody literally pushed her back so they could get through,” Rivera added.
Alberto Herrero, from Chicago, told NBC’s "Today" that he escaped from the rear emergency exit of the plane and helped others climb out behind him as the cabin filled with black smoke.
“We ended up hitting a hailstorm that caused a lot of turbulence. As we were starting our ascent ... it just brought us back down," he recalled. “I have felt turbulence before but this time it was different."
Herrero added: “It’s kind of a miracle we all made it. It’s just a blessing we can tell the story.”
Aeroméxico has not had any fatal crashes in 10 years. The aircraft, registered as XA-GAL, was delivered in May 2008 and flew with for Republic Airlines for US Airways until 2014.
Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, which is in talks with Boeing about a partnership, has delivered more than 1,400 E-design large regional jets.
Only two have been involved in fatal crashes: a 2010 accident in China, caused by pilot error, and another in Namibia in 2013 when a LAM Airlines pilot deliberately downed the plane during a hostage-taking.
Embraer said late Tuesday that it had sent technicians to support the investigation.