GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) -- Flight 523 from New York had just touched down and passengers were applauding the pilot's landing in the South American country Saturday when something suddenly went wrong.
The Boeing 737-800 slid off the end of a rainy runway, crashed through a chain-link fence and broke in half just short of a deep ravine. Yet all 163 people on board survived.
Officials were starting to probe the cause of the crash even as they marveled at the lack of fatalities.
``We must be the luckiest country and luckiest set of people in the world to escape so lightly,'' said Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who said more than 30 people were taken to the hospital. Only three of those had to be admitted for a broken leg, bumps, cuts and bruises.
The Caribbean Airlines plane had left John F. Kennedy International Airport Friday evening and made a stop in Trinidad before landing in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, recalled how applause at the arrival quickly ``turned to screams.''
The broken fuselage of a Caribbean Airlines' Boeing 737-800 is seen after it crashed at the end of the runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Timehri, Guyana, Saturday. (AP-Yonhap News)
``The plane sped up as if attempting to take off again. It is then that I smelled gas in the cabin and people started to shout and holler,'' she said.
When the plane crumpled to a stop, Ramsingh said she hopped onto the wing and then onto the dirt road outside the runway fence.
``A fellow who was trying to escape as well mistakenly jumped on my back and that is why my knees are bruised,'' she said. ``So I am in pain, but very thankful to be alive.''
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, and described jumping from the wing to the dirt road below as crews with flashlights and beams from fire engines searched for passengers.
``I thought I would have died. I just started to cry,'' she said.
The plane came to rest off the end of the 7,400-foot (2,200-meter) runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, which sits on a ridge in forested region just south of the oceanfront capital of nearly 300,000 people.
Authorities struggled at first to remove passengers without adequate field lights and other emergency equipment.
The plane stopped a little short of a 200-foot (60-meter) ravine that could have resulted in dozens of fatalities, said President Bharrat Jagdeo.
``We are very, very grateful that more people were not injured,'' said Jagdeo, who came to the crash site before dawn.
George Nicholas, Caribbean Airlines chairman, told reporters that officials with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are scheduled to arrive Sunday in Guyana to take over the investigation. He said investigators from Guyana and Trinidad, the airline's base, will help.
He said the airline is arranging for counselors to meet with passengers.
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 523 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.
여객기 두동강 났는데 탑승자 모두 생존
남아메리카 대륙 동북쪽에 있는 가이아나에서 착륙 도중 활주로를 이탈한 여객기가 두 동강이 났으나 160여명의 탑승자 모두 생명을 건지는 '기적'과 같은 일이 발생했다.
가이아나 수도 조지타운의 체디 자간 공항에서 30일 오전 1시30분께(이하 현지시각) 승객 157명과 승무원 6명 등 모두 163명을 태운 트리니다드 토바고 국영항공사인 카리브항공 여객기 523편이 비바람이 몰아치는 악천후 속에 착륙을 시도하던 중 활주로를 이탈했다.
보잉 737-800 기종의 이 여객기는 공항 경계에 처진 철조망을 잇달아 들이받았고, 2천200ｍ 길이의 활주로를 벗어나 울창한 숲이 있는 협곡 바로 앞에 멈춰 섰다.
이 사고로 앞쪽 3분의 1 정도가 부러지면서 기체가 두 동강 났으나 163명의 탑승자 모두 생명에 지장은 없었다고 가이아나 정부와 항공사 관계자들이 전했다.
사고 여객기는 29일 밤 미국 뉴욕 존 F. 케네디 공항을 이륙해 트리니다드 토바고를 거쳐 이날 새벽 가이아나에 도착했다.
탑승자 대부분은 칠흑 같은 어둠 속에서 별다른 비상 장비도 없이 기체 뒷부분의 비상구를 이용해 탈출한 것으로 알려졌다.
한 탑승자는 착륙 직후 여객기가 다시 이륙을 시도하는 것처럼 속도가 빨라졌으며 기내에서 가스 냄새를 맡았다고 증언했다.
동트기 전 일부 각료들과 사고 현장에 도착한 바라트 자그데오 가이아나 대통령은 "여객기가 60ｍ 깊이의 협곡 바로 앞에서 멈춰 섰다"면서 "하마터면 수십 명의 사망자가 발생할 뻔했다"고 놀란 가슴을 쓸어내렸다.
레슬리 람사미 가이아나 보건 장관은 "30명 이상이 병원으로 옮겨졌으나 심각한 부상자는 3명 정도"라면서 "이들은 정말 가장 운이 좋은 승객들"이라고 말했다.
조지 니콜라스 카리브항공 회장은 체디 자간 공항에서 기자들에게 미 교통안전위원회(NTSB) 조사단이 31일 현장에 도착해 블랙박스를 회수하고 가이아나와 트리니다드 토바고의 지원을 받아 사고 원인을 조사할 것이라고 밝혔다.
한편, 이 사고로 체디 자간 공항이 이날 오전 한때 폐쇄돼 수십 대의 항공기 운항이 지연됐지만 낮부터 정상 가동됐다고 관계 당국이 전했다. (연합뉴스)