GEORGETOWN, GUYANA—Flight 523 from New York had just touched down and passengers were applauding the pilot’s landing in this South American country 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, including 12 Canadians, survived.
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Officials were starting to probe the cause of the crash on Saturday even as they marvelled at the absence of fatalities. A U.S. team is expected soon in the South American country of Guyana to investigate .
The Caribbean Airlines plane had left John F. Kennedy International Airport Friday evening and made a stop in Trinidad before landing at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
“We must be the luckiest country and luckiest set of people in the world to escape so lightly,” said Guyanese Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who reported more than 30 people were taken to hospital. Only three of those had to be admitted for a broken leg, bumps, cuts and bruises.
Foreign Affairs in Ottawa issued a statement saying it has been in contact with local authorities and was told one of the Canadians aboard suffered a minor injury.
It says consular aid is being made available if needed.
The plane came to rest off the end of the 2,200-metre runway at the airport, which sits on a ridge in a forested region just south of the oceanfront capital. It stopped a little short of a 60-metre ravine; if the plane had fallen in, there could have been dozens of fatalities, said Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, recalled how applause at the arrival quickly “turned to screams.”
“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.”
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,” she said. “I was the second-to-last person to get off that plane in the dark.”
Authorities struggled at first to remove passengers without adequate field lights and other emergency equipment.
George Nicholas, chairman of Caribbean Airlines, told reporters that officials with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are scheduled to arrive in Guyana on Sunday to take over the investigation. He said investigators from Guyana and Trinidad, the airline’s base, will help.
Authorities temporarily closed the airport, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded and delaying dozens of flights.