Investigators hunting clues in Denver jet accident

By: AP
By: AP

DENVER (AP) -- Investigators took photos and measurements at the charred wreckage of a Continental Airlines jet Monday, searching for clues about why the plane veered off a runway and skidded into a shallow ravine.

The twin-engine Boeing 737-500 still sat in a shallow, snow-covered ravine where it came to rest after its aborted takeoff Saturday at Denver International Airport.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators made preliminary reviews of the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder on Sunday, agency spokesman Peter Knudson said.

No information has been released, but Knudson said "we do have good data" from the recorders.

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. He wouldn't release their names.

FAA records show the plane, 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 gone airborne, city aviation manager Kim Day said.

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. Officials weren't sure whether injuries were caused by the impact or the evacuation.

The weather was clear but cold when the plane attempted to take off for Houston about 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, 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.

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.

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."

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.

Besides the 1995 engine failure, the FAA records show four other trouble reports. Inspections in 2005 found corrosion on the airplane frame and a cracked rivet, both of which were repaired.

In 1996, a grease buildup caused a galley oven to smoke, and in April of this year, a detector gave a false indicator of smoke in a cargo hold. Both problems were repaired, the records show.

Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation.

"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.


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