GEORGETOWN, Guyana - A Caribbean Airlines jet from New York touched down on rainy runway, then slid through a chain-link fence and broke apart just short of a ravine on Saturday in Guyana. Miraculously there were no immediate reports of death among the 163 people aboard, despite several dozen of injuries.
Passengers aboard Flight 523 said they had begun to applaud the pilot's landing in the South American country when suddenly things went wrong.
The Boeing 737-800 apparently overshot the 7,400-foot runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport and barely missed a 200-foot ravine that could have resulted in dozens of fatalities, said President Bharrat Jagdeo, who came to the crash site before dawn.
"We are very, very grateful that more people were not injured," he said.
About 100 people received medical attention, with four hospitalized for serious injuries, said Devant Maharaj, transportation minister in Trinidad, where Caribbean Airlines is based.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, who said passengers had just started to applaud the touchdown "when it turned to screams," she said. She hopped onto the wing and then onto the dirt road outside the runway fence, apparently suffering only bruised knees.
Nobody had yet showed up to rescue her, "but a taxi driver appeared from nowhere and charged me $20 to take me to the terminal. I had to pay, but in times of emergencies, you don't charge people for a ride," she said, sitting on a chair in the arrival area surrounded by relatives. She was returning to her native country for only the second time in 30 years.
Adis Cambridge, 42, of Guyana, said she felt the thump of a hard landing but did not think much of it until seconds later.
"I realized that everything was on top of me, people and bags. I was the second to last person to get off that plane in the dark," she said, surrounded by her two young children who had come to the airport to meet her after a brief holiday in the U.S.
"I hit my head on the roof. It was so scary," she said as she described jumping from the wing to the dirt road below as crews with flashlights and beams from fire engines searched for passengers.
Authorities struggled at first to remove passengers without adequate field lights and other emergency equipment.
The plane had left New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and made a stop in Trinidad before landing in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear and Jagdeo said he has asked the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to help investigate the crash.
Authorities temporarily closed the Guyana airport, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded and delaying dozens of flights. The main terminal reopened late Saturday morning to only a couple of small planes, including a LIAT airline bound for Barbados, said Orin Walton, a local representative for the Antigua-based carrier.
The crash of Flight BW523 is the worst in recent history in Guyana, and only one of the few serious incidents involving the Trinidad-based airline. It is the single largest carrier in the region, operating at least five daily flights.