TOKYO: Japanese investigators on Wednesday probed a collision at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport of a coast guard plane and a passenger jet that killed five people, with almost 400 others narrowly escaping a raging inferno.
All but one of the six people on the smaller aircraft were killed, but all 379 Japan Airlines passengers and crew escaped down emergency slides minutes before the Airbus was engulfed in flames late Tuesday.
The blackened husk of the airliner, still sitting on the tarmac Wednesday, bore witness to just how dangerous their escape had been. Several hundred metres (yards) away lay the remains of the coast guard’s DHC-8 aircraft.
The captain of the coast guard plane — which had been bound for the New Year’s Day earthquake zone in central Japan — was its lone survivor but suffered serious injuries.
Footage on Tuesday showed a ball of fire erupting from underneath the airliner shortly after it landed and came to a halt on its nose when its front landing gear failed.
As people slid to safety, dozens of fire engines with blue and red flashing lights sprayed the flames, but the entire fuselage was soon ablaze.
It took eight hours to finally extinguish the fire.
“It was getting hot inside the plane, and I thought, to be honest, I would not survive,“ one passenger told broadcaster NHK.
“I thought we landed normally. But then I realised I was smelling smoke,“ a woman with a small child told NHK.
“I needed to protect my daughter. That was the only thing in my mind,“ she added.
Another passenger described surviving the crash as a “miracle”.
“I bounced off my seat from the impact when we landed,“ the 28-year-old man told Nikkei Asia.
“We made it just in the nick of time. It’s a miracle we survived.”
– Landing clearance –
Takuya Fujiwara from the Japan Transport Safety Board told reporters that the flight recorder and the voice recorder from the coast guard plane had been found, but those of the passenger jet were still being sought.
“We are surveying the situation. Various parts are scattered on the runway,“ Fujiwara said, adding that the authority planned to interview several people involved.
Asked at a briefing whether the Japan Airlines flight had landing permission, officials at the major carrier said: “Our understanding is that it was given.”
But JAL and the land ministry declined to comment directly on exchanges between flight controllers and the two planes, citing the ongoing investigation.
The Transport Ministery released the transcripts of flight controllers’ communications, which approved the JAL flight to land while telling the coastguard plane to go to a spot near the runway, local media reported.
In a recording from Haneda’s control tower apparently made in the moments before the collision, available on a site that broadcasts live air traffic signals, a voice is heard advising JAL’s flight to “continue approach”.
NHK reported that the control tower had instructed the coast guard plane to hold short of the runway.
But the broadcaster also quoted an unnamed coast guard official as saying that the pilot, Genki Miyamoto, 39, said immediately after the accident that he had permission to take off.
– Airbus investigators –
Dozens of domestic flights were cancelled on Wednesday from Haneda, one of the world’s busiest airports, but international arrivals and departures were little affected.
Airbus said it would send a team of specialists to help investigate.
The passenger plane had arrived from New Chitose Airport serving Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. Those on board included eight children.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida praised the deceased coast guard personnel on their way to help the victims of the quake that killed at least 64 people.
“These were employees who had a high sense of mission and responsibility for the affected areas,“ he said Tuesday.
In 1985, a JAL jumbo jet flying from Tokyo to Osaka crashed, killing 520 passengers and crew, in one of the world’s deadliest crashes involving a single flight.
The world’s worst civil aviation disaster also happened on the ground when two Boeing 747s collided at Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife in 1977, killing 583 people.
“I can’t speculate on what happened here but human error will probably be found as a contributing cause,“ Doug Drury, aviation expert at Central Queensland University, told AFP.
“Airlines are required to be able to empty an airplane of all passengers and crew within 90 seconds. The flight crews train for events quite frequently in simulation and it is a complicated process that as we saw was completed without fail,“ he said.
“A key component here was that no one tried to grab their carry-on bags.” –AFP