DIA Crash Investigation Focuses Flight Recorders, Pilots
Plane To Remain Between Runways For Several Days
DENVER — Investigators climbed inside the cracked, charred wreckage of a Continental Airlines jet Monday, searching for clues about why the plane veered off a runway and slid nearly half a mile into a ravine.
The twin-engine Boeing 737-500 still sat in the snow-covered ravine where it came to rest after its aborted takeoff Saturday at Denver International Airport. Behind it, a 2,500-foot-long scar through the grass and snow marked the plane’s path.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators conducted preliminary reviews of the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder on Sunday, agency spokesman Peter Knudson said.
Investigators planned to interview the captain and the first officer later Monday. Both had clean safety records with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Robert Sumwalt, NTSB Board member, said investigators have not yet talked to the pilots. He said he didn’t even know if they were pilot and co-pilot were male or female.
“We have to wait for the right time,” he said. “It’s not something we want to delay and we want to do it as soon as possible.”
He said there is “good data” on the flight recorders and crew conversations are audible. Transcripts would be made within three days, for investigators.
During the Monday afternoon news conference, he said there were other off-duty personnel on board the plane, they hoped to interview them Monday.
FAA records show the aircraft, built in 1994, had to make an emergency landing in Denver in 1995 when one of its two engines failed, but the aircraft touched down safely and no injuries were reported. The engine was replaced.
The latest accident forced the 115 passengers and crew aboard Flight 1404 to flee through emergency exits as the plane burned. The jet had shed its left engine and both main landing gears. The entire right side of the jet was burned, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats.
The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to have gotten airborne, city aviation manager Kim Day said. Her account was contradicted by some passengers who said the plane did leave the ground.
A source close to the initial investigation who spoke to CALL7 Investigator Tony Kovaleski said investigators are looking very closely at wind shear and a potential gust of wind as the cause of the plane crash.
“At this stage in the investigation, wind sheer or a large guest of wind are the most probable causes of the crash,” the source, who refused to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publically about the investigation, told Kovaleski.
“There’s never just one cause to a plane accident,” said ABC analyst John Nash. “It was what we call a ‘high speed abort.'”
Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport, said it was a miracle “that everybody survived the impact and the fire.”
Thirty-eight people suffered injuries including broken bones, although officials weren’t sure whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation.
The weather was clear but cold when the plane attempted to take off for Houston around 6:20 p.m. Saturday. Winds at the airport were 31 mph, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.
“No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind” before Flight 1404 tried to lift off, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Davis, one of the firefighters who rushed to the scene, said the plane came to a rest about 200 yards from one of the airport’s four fire stations. Passengers walked out of the ravine in 24-degree cold and crowded inside the station, he said.
A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, Davis said. There were 110 passengers and five crew members aboard, officials said.
Passengers Recount Horror
Passenger Gabriel Trejos told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in Denver that the plane buckled during its high-speed skid across the ground and seats came loose. His knees were bruised from the seat in front of him as he tried to protect his 13-month-old son in his lap.
“That’s all I could think of, just please don’t squish the baby,” he said. “Everybody was shocked about what was going on. They were just trying to hang on for dear life.”
His pregnant wife, Maria Trejos, said that there was an explosion and that the right side of the plane, where they were sitting, became engulfed in flames. The family used an emergency exit and slid down the wing of the jet to the ground.
Gabriel said the plane was airborne “for a moment” and the plane came down hard on the runway, breaking seats.
“There were a few screams here and there,” he said.
Passenger Kristina Beagle, 22, of Houston, told CBS’ “Early Show” that she thought the plane close to takeoff speed and felt like it was in the air before it slammed along the ground.
“It was like we were in a movie,” she said. “People were screaming and once I heard the people scream, I realized, oh, my gosh, we’re crashing.”
But the evacuation was orderly, even as the right side of the plane burned. “I just felt a glow on my right side. That was the only light i had in the entire cabin and I felt the warmth,” Beagle said. “For some reason I just didn’t believe it was happening.”
MyReporter Samantha Rostovich was in the jet immediately behind the sticken 737.
“Most of the passengers on my flight were watching their TV screens at the time, but as a nervous flyer already, I was looking out the window watching this Continental flight take off down the runway. I was just waiting to see the lights from it climb into the sky but all I saw was a giant fireball erupt. I was in a state of shock. Our pilot came on the intercom and said there had been a small incident on our runway and that we were going to try and get to a new runway to take off.
“So many people are writing in on these news blogs and saying how DIA has no ambulances. Within a minute I saw both ambulances and fire trucks rushing to the scene. It still seems so unreal, but I am glad everyone is OK,” she wrote.
Annette Ludnick, of Colorado Springs, Colo., told KKTV in Colorado Springs that she was sitting in the back row of the 737 when it left the runway.
“The overhead compartments, the doors came flying down, everything was falling.” Ludnick told the TV station.
“I remember turning around and seeing that big ball of fire and thinking oh my God it’s really on fire,” she said.
She managed to scramble down an evacuation chute and run for safety. She was heading to Houston to see her daughter.
“It didn’t really sound like an explosion. It was more like a big thud,” said Maria Trejos, 30, who was sitting on the right side of the plane with her husband, who had their 1-year-old son on his lap.
She told The Associated Press on Monday she thought the plane was about to take off when it veered off the left side of the runway. She felt a bump and saw a fireball through the window, and it felt briefly like they were airborne, but she said that may have been when the plane was dropping into the ravine.
Trejos then smelled fuel and thought, “I hope the plane doesn’t explode.”
At first, the cabin was eerily quiet, with no one screaming, she said, but then it quickly got hot from the fire and people began to panic when they saw smoke and flames.
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to burn. I don’t want my baby or my husband to burn,”‘ said Trejos, who is also four months pregnant.
They scrambled onto a wing and slid to the ground. She said their son has cuts on his legs and she her husband are bruised and sore, but all three are otherwise fine.
They were headed to Houston to visit her husband’s family but instead went home to Pueblo West, about 100 miles south of Denver, happy to be alive.
“It’s going to be the best Christmas ever,” she said.
Arriving At Houston
Many passengers from the flight arrived in Houston, its original destination, on Sunday afternoon, some clearly injured, the Houston Chronicle reported.
The gate where relatives waited at Bush Intercontinental Airport was blocked off from the rest of the terminal. One woman limped off the flight with red-rimmed eyes; another was in a wheelchair, wearing a neck brace, the newspaper reported. A young boy was taken by stretcher straight to an elevator.
Sumwalt, of the NTSB, said the damaged plane would remain for several days in the 40-foot-deep ravine where it landed. That runway will remain closed during the investigation, he said.
Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation. He declined to comment on whether Boeing had any indication of possible problems with the 737-500 jetliner.
“We will also do whatever we can to learn the cause of this accident so that we can prevent a recurrence at Continental or at any other airline,” said Larry Kellner, Continental’s chairman and chief executive officer.