Inquiry into Wrecked Air France Jet

Toronto airport authorities are looking into the possible causes of Tuesday's dramatic and fiery crash. Miraculously, all 309 passengers and crew on board survived. Apparently the oxygen masks never deployed, and some of the emergency chutes failed to open properly.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Investigators say heavy rain, wind and lightning were likely factors in the crash of an Air France jet yesterday in Toronto. But they're not ruling anything else out, as they try to figure out what caused the plane to skid off a runway and burst into flames.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

While Canada's transportation officials still have to figure out what went wrong, they all agree about what went right: the evacuation that allowed all the passengers to escape minutes before the plane was engulfed in flames. NPR's Robert Smith reports from Toronto.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

The chief engineer of the Toronto airport, Brian Lackey, says he was looking out the window yesterday afternoon at the black clouds and bursts of lightning that were gathering above his runways.

Mr. BRIAN LACKEY (Chief Engineer, Toronto Airport): It was definitely an extreme storm. It was something that we haven't seen here for some time, definitely different.

SMITH: And the situation was growing more serious as the afternoon went on. The airport was under a lightning alert, and planes were unable to pull up to the gates because the Tarmac was becoming congested. Flights heading to Toronto were held at other airports. But Air France Flight 358 was already circling. The plane had enough fuel to divert to another airport, but it was the pilot's decision to make, and he decided to land. Investigators still don't know what happened on that runway that led the plane to skid off the end into a ravine. Don Enns is with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Mr. DON ENNS (Transportation Safety Board of Canada): We're going to be looking at absolutely everything. We don't limit ourselves to something--weather, although it's likely it's going to be a factor in here.

SMITH: Crews are pulling the flight data recorders and control tower tapes today, and they say the investigation has no time limit. But already they were commending the Air France crew and the emergency personnel at the airport for the lack of fatalities. Mike Figliola, the fire chief at the airport, says his trucks arrived at the plane 52 seconds after the crash, and even then three-quarters of the passengers had already been evacuated down emergency chutes.

Mr. MIKE FIGLIOLA (Airport Fire Chief): The crew did a great job. I mean, they're trained to get the people off. We got there, kept the route clear from fire and smoke and then moved in to help with the evacuation.

SMITH: Figliola estimates that the whole plane was cleared in about two minutes. The pilot, he says, was the last man out, making one last check for passengers. Dominique Pajot, a French businessman who was sitting near the front of the flight, praised the crew for quickly moving to the emergency exits.

Mr. DOMINIQUE PAJOT (Passenger): Immediately they went to--came up and opened the doors and started talking to people, and they led the process. They come--because people were a bit panicky. In fact, panic was growing very quickly.

SMITH: But other passengers say that it wasn't necessarily a textbook evacuation. Olivier DuBois says it was very dark, and he doesn't remember emergency lighting coming on. He says that at the back of the plane, the flight attendants hesitated.

Mr. OLIVIER DuBOIS (Passenger): They were not too sure if we should jump right now or wait or whatever. And then since I was among the first one--my seat was next to it--I was among the very first ones to go and jump.

SMITH: DuBois also recalls that not all of the emergency chutes were inflated and able to help people exit. Dominique Pajot says the big problem was they had no guidance on what to do or where to go after they left the plane.

Mr. PAJOT: And we waited quite a long time to get ambulances and stretchers and to be evacuated from the shelters we had found. So I think that it took a while for the rescuers to come.

SMITH: Pajot ended up leading a group through the ravine looking for shelter, and he wasn't found by officials for 20 minutes. Other passengers stumbled out onto a highway bordering the runway and hitched rides back to the airport. All those issues will be part of the Transportation Board investigation, but Don Enns with the agency says one lesson from the crash is clear.

Mr. ENNS: It's a really good idea to pay attention to the safety briefings. The stewardesses are actually not hired as waitresses. They're actually hired for safety reasons.

SMITH: The Toronto airport, which was closed yesterday evening, reopened today, but airlines were still struggling to get their planes back on schedule and passengers on to their destinations. Robert Smith, NPR News, Toronto.

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