Plane Crashes More Survivable than Ever

Workers sift through debris surrounding the fuselage of American Airlines flight AA331 which crash landed overnight on a flight from Miami to Jamaica, just beyond the runway of Norman Manley International Airport, in Kingston Jamaica, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009. More than 40 people were injured, at least 4 seriously, and there were no fatalities, according to officials, after the plane overshot the runway in Jamaica when it landed in heavy rain. (AP Photo/Lloyd Robinson) JAMAICA OUT
AP Photo/Lloyd Robinson

U.S. and Jamaican authorities are asking tough questions as they investigate Tuesday's American Airlines crash in Kingston.

Everyone on board survived after the Boeing 737 overran the runway. They've been called lucky, but there may be more to it. Recent safety improvements have made surviving crashes more likely, as CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella reports.

Investigators pulled the cockpit voice recorder from the fractured Boeing 737 today and sent it to Washington D.C. for analysis. They hope it will shed light on at least one question - why the captain of American Airlines flight 331 chose to land Tuesday night instead of circling around for a second try.

Paul Williamson was sitting in seat 3-F, four rows from the first crack in the fuselage. He remembers coming in high, the wheels touching late, then two successive loud booms.

I got out of the plane climbed over the rocks, walked over the wing, climbed down to the road in the rain," Williamson recalled. "I'm turning around looking at this aircraft that's cracked in three places and just wondering, 'How in the world did i survive this?'"

The aviation industry has made enormous improvements in aircraft safety over the past 20 years.

Some are very simple. The wall that separates first class from coach is now 25-30 inches farther from the seats so passengers won't be thrown against it in a sudden stop. Cabin floors are stronger where the seats attach. Seat tracks have been strengthened with steel or aluminum, making it more likely they'll stay in place in a crash.

Door handles on emergency exits are easier to use, and evacuation slides now deploy automatically when the door opens.

Ground proximity warning systems are so much better that it's almost impossible for a pilot to fly a plane unknowingly into the ground.

And aircraft bellies are now designed to absorb the force of a crash...which helped protect passengers when a U.S. Airways plane landed in the Hudson River.

"Many people still think that if you have an accident you're going to die," said aviation expert John Goglia. "But the fact is that 90 to 95 percent of the people involved in accidents today survive."

Both of the plane's black boxes are with an NTSB team in Washington for analysis. Investigators hope to move the wreckage of this 737 by Sunday.