KINGSTON, Jamaica – 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 last 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.
“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.
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 US 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.
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