(CBS/AP) It was a miracle that no one was killed when an airliner veered sharply off a runway during takeoff, burst into flames and nearly broke apart, firefighters said Sunday.
There was no official word on the possible cause of the crash of Continental Flight 1404 at Denver International Airport, which injured 38 people. Cockpit and voice recorders were recovered and appeared to be in good condition, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
As the plane was preparing to take off something went very wrong, reports correspondent Rick Sallinger with CBS station KCNC. The jumbo jet veered left off the runway, across a taxiway, finally coming to rest in a ravine.
"We went off into what felt like a little bit of a rough patch, took a little bump up, took flight for a few moments, hit the ground again, bumped again then the engine on the right side of the plane seemed to just blow up," passenger Alex Zamora told KCNC in Denver.
Gabriel Trejos was on board with his infant son, Sallinger reports.
"On my side of the plane I could see the engine," Trejos told KCNC. "I noticed it was on fire. And I could feel the heat coming from the window."
One passenger snapped photos as flames erupted, engulfing most of the right side of the aircraft. Inside, melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats.
When rescue crews arrived they described the scene as, "Surreal, like something out of a movie." Firefighters were prepared to see dead bodies inside, but passengers had already tumbled down chutes to escape.
"We had people that were totally dazed, had that deer in headlights look, we had people that were very emotional, crying," says Tom Glivar, a Fire Captain with Denver's Engine 32.
None of the injuries was life threatening - mainly broken bones, smoke inhalation and bruises.
By daylight the charred right side of the plane was visible from the air. The fuselage appeared cracked and one of the engines was lying on the ground.
At the time of the accident it was cold and windy in Denver - but it's too soon to know if weather is a factor in the crash, reports Sallinger.
"It was a miracle ... that everybody survived the impact and the fire," said Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport. "It was just amazing."
A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, Davis 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.
The 110 passengers and five crew members left the plane on emergency slides, officials said.
Passenger Emily Pellegrini told The Denver Post that as the plane headed down the runway, "It was bumpy, then it was bumpier, then it wasn't bumpy."
The injuries included broken bones, but Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, didn't know whether they were caused by the impact or the evacuation. Two people were initially listed in critical condition at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver but were upgraded Sunday, one to serious and one to fair, spokeswoman Tonya Ewers said.
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.
Investigators said Sunday evening that work would start again at daybreak. Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, 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.
The weather was cold but not snowy when the plane took off on a flight to Houston around 6:20 p.m. Saturday.
The ravine in which the plane came to rest sits between runways. Flat land is rare on the plains abutting the Rocky Mountains near Denver, and the airport was built on gently rolling country. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.
Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation and sending representatives to Denver on Sunday night. He declined to comment on whether Boeing had any indication of possible problems with the 737-500 jetliner.