CBSN

Questions Remain in Jamaica Runway Overrun

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
Updated 6:36 p.m. EST

Passengers on American Airlines Flight 331 had endured the crowded airports and delays of holiday travel, and were moments from their Caribbean destination. Suddenly, everything seemed to spin out of control.

Touching down Tuesday night in a fierce rain, the Boeing 737-800 slammed into the runway of Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport. The aircraft skidded to a halt at the edge of the sea, leaving battered and bruised passengers screaming in panic as the smell of jet fuel spread through the darkened cabin, which had cracked open in places.

"We just felt a big crash, all the lights went off, and we felt the big impact and we realized the plane had crashed," passenger Loana Brown told CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella. "We scrambled out because we tried - we didn't know if was going to explode, so we got out as quickly as possible."

"I just wanted to get the hell out of there, as far as I could, because I could smell the fumes, and I knew that if it blew, it could be a pretty big fireball," said Gary Wehrwein, 67, who was traveling with his wife, Pilar Abaurrea, from Keene, New Hampshire.

All 154 people aboard survived, with 92 taken to hospitals and 13 admitted, but none of the injuries were considered to be life-threatening, said Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz. One woman had surgery for a broken nose and cuts to her face.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said 76 of the passengers were Americans. Of those, at least 40 were taken to local hospitals with minor injuries. Four Americans were in serious condition. None of the injuries appeared to be life threatening, Manley Airport vice president Paul Hall told Cobiella.

The plane came to a stop on the sandy edge of an airport access road, and Transport Minister Mike Henry described it as a "Christmas miracle."

"If the plane was going faster, it would have gone into the sea," Henry said.

In daylight Wednesday, as soldiers stood around the wrecked jet, the damage was clear: The fuselage was cracked open, its left main landing gear had collapsed, and its nose was crushed and pointing off toward the sea.

Members of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board were assisting an investigation led by Jamaica's government, but there was no immediate explanation for what caused the plane to overshoot the runway. Some aviation experts speculated the pilot was descending too fast for the conditions.

Investigators were expected to analyze, among other things, whether the plane should have been landing in such bad weather, said American spokesman Tim Smith in Fort Worth, Texas, although he added that other planes had landed safely in the heavy rain.

"At this point, it's now going to be in the hands of the NTSB and the FAA, plus any Jamaican government authorities that may be involved, and to start and sort of backtrack and see what happened and how it can be prevented from happening again," Smith said.

U.S. officials will take the plane's flight data recorder, one of its black boxes back to Washington to try to figure out what happened - how far along the runway the plane touched down, at what speed, and whether it was affected by puddles of water.

Investigators will also look for evidence of wind shear, check the jet's braking systems and review the pilots' actions. But Jim Tilmon, a former American Airlines pilot, says severe weather alone should not have been a problem for the 8-year old Boeing 737.

"Jamaica is home to a lot of scattered showers and thunderstorm activity. It's not anything rare to have that kind of landing weather," he said.

For the passengers, the most startling thing of all seemed to be how a bumpy but otherwise ordinary trip descended so quickly into chaos.

Flight 331 took off from Miami International Airport at 8:52 p.m. - about an hour late - and arrived at Norman Manley International Airport at 10:22 p.m. It originated at Reagan National Airport in Washington.

The jet had a crew of six and 148 passengers, many of them Jamaicans coming home for Christmas, officials said.

Passengers said the in-flight turbulence forced the crew to halt the beverage service three times before finally giving up.

Before descending, the pilot warned of more turbulence but said it likely wouldn't be much worse, Abaurrea told The Associated Press.

"All of a sudden, when it hit the ground, the plane was kind of bouncing. Someone said the plane was skidding and there was panic," she said.

Wehrwein said there was no time to feel afraid. Immediately after impact, he was hit in the back by a panel that fell from the interior ceiling and then the jet came to an abrupt halt, he recalled.

"I wasn't thinking I was going to die. I said, 'Oh my God, we crashed,' then I got hit in back," Wehrwein said.

He and his wife recalled a hissing sound in the darkness, perhaps from the release of oxygen, people crying out and the smell of fumes, and a mad scramble to get out of the rear emergency exit with the help of the shouting flight crew.

"To me, it's a miracle to be alive," Wehrwein said. "So, I'm just grateful for that."

Passenger Paul Williamson, visiting his native Jamaica from his home in Toronto, said he was frightened when he noticed the plane's wheels didn't seem to touch down right away. He said he crouched into a crash position in his seat near the front of the plane.

"Next thing I know, I hear a crashing sound, then the sound of twisting metal. It all happened so fast, but when the plane came to rest, that's when the screaming and the carrying on started," Williamson, a 37-year-old opera singer, told the AP.

Passenger Natalie Morales Hendricks told NBC's "Today" the plane began to skid and "before I knew it, everything was black and we were crashing."

"Everybody's overhead baggage started to fall. Literally, it was like being in a car accident. People were screaming, I was screaming," she said.

"There was smoke and debris everywhere," after the plane halted, she said.

Williamson praised the flight crew for ably assisting the passengers. "It really could have been much, much worse," he said.

Wehrwein remembers coming out to sheets of torrential, "hurricane-type" rain as they walked along the sand to a bus to take them to the terminal, where they encountered airport staff unprepared to handle the situation.

Dazed passengers waited an hour before straggling out of the airport, many with bruises and cuts.

"It was chaos. Nobody knew what to do with us," Wehrwein said by phone from his stepson's home in Kingston.

The couple said they were relieved to escape with just some soreness and that no one was killed. "I'm a little bit shook up but OK," Abaurrea said.

Henry defended the response of the airport staff, saying the emergency services acted professionally and in accordance with international guidelines by getting to the scene and tending to the injured in 5½ minutes. He said nine ambulances responded and were able to get the injured to hospital in due time.

While flights have resumed from the airport, bigger carriers such as Virgin and British Airways will be diverted to the Donald Sangster airport in Montego Bay. He said everything should be back to normal by Thursday.