Officials probe American plane wreck in Jamaica

AP News
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Posted: Dec 24, 2009 3:56 PM

Jamaican and U.S. authorities launched a probe Thursday examining whether the pilot of American Airlines Flight 331 could have avoided an accident that cracked open the plane and sent nearly 100 people to the hospital.

One alternative could have been to abort the landing and circle around for another attempt, Oscar Derby, director general of Jamaica's Civil Aviation Authority, told The Associated Press.

"We would want to look at why that option was not selected," he said, adding that he was not sure it would have been possible. "Runway excursions are responsible for many of the fatalities in modern aviation."

The Boeing 737-800 skidded off the runway of Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport in heavy rain late Tuesday, lurching as it stopped at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. The flight originated from Reagan National Airport in Washington and left Miami International Airport about an hour late.

The plane's fuselage broke open, its left main landing gear collapsed and its nose was crushed.

All 154 people aboard survived, with 92 taken to hospitals, but none of the injuries were considered life-threatening. The U.S. State Department said 76 of the passengers were Americans.

Many on board clapped as the plane landed, said Anthony Davis, who was traveling with his wife.

"The landing wasn't smooth, but I think with the weather and the rain, people were so happy they came down from the sky," he said. "Next thing I know, I hit my head violently on the seat. It was as if somebody had picked me up and threw me."

He said he grabbed his wife's hand, hurried out in a daze onto the plane's wing and jumped into a puddle below. The pilot emerged and asked people to remain still in the pouring rain so he could get a head count, Davis said.

"The pilot looked like somebody who was under control. He didn't display any panic," said Davis, who is the athletic director at the University of Technology, Jamaica.

While fire trucks responded immediately, it took authorities some time to get organized, he said.

"The persons didn't know there was an accident. The police were standing around. The area was not secured," he said.

Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz did not return calls for comment.

Investigation of the wreckage will likely wrap up on Sunday, Derby said. Officials were interviewing the crew and passengers and looking at flight controls and weather conditions.

Other planes landed safely and without difficulty that night, but conditions varied from landing to landing, Derby said.

"The weather was changing by the hour," he said. "The weather experience for that particular flight at that moment could have been somewhat different from the weather experienced by other airlines."

The plane landed with a thud, said first-class passenger Derick Heaven, former head of the Jamaican consulate in New York.

"When we touched the runway, it was like we dropped out of the sky," he said. "It was then I knew that something was wrong."

Heaven said he has bruises on his neck, legs and shoulder.

On Thursday, Norman Manley International Airport reopened to large planes that had been diverted to Montego Bay, according to customer service spokesman Chad Anthony Smart.

A team of six U.S. investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board was in Kingston to assist a probe led by the Jamaican government, agency spokesman Keith Holloway said.

One of two flight data recorders from the plane was retrieved and taken to the NTSB laboratory in Washington. The second will arrive sometime after the holidays, Holloway said. He could not estimate how long the analysis of the recorders would take.

The pilot had 22 years experience and logged 2,695 hours flying 737s, while the first officer had 10 years experience and 5,027 hours, said American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

Sam Mayer, a spokesman for the Texas-based Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American, said he was concerned that the pilot and first officer were completing a 12-hour shift when they touched down in Jamaica _ though he stopped short of speculating that fatigue may have been a factor.

"Any time you are landing in bad weather at night and you are at the end of a long shift, it's going to be different than when you are sprightly and fresh," Mayer said Thursday.

Mayer has previously called for updating rules that govern how long commercial pilots can fly and remain on duty.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration declined comment and referred all questions to the NTSB.

It is the worst accident that Jamaica's main airport has seen, Derby said.

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Campbell from Kingston. Associated Press writer David McFadden in San Juan also contributed to this report.