It was a miraculous escape for 300 passengers and crew on Wednesday when an Emirates passenger jet arriving from Thiruvananthapuram caught fire after a hard landing in Dubai, bringing the world’s busiest international airport to a halt.
A firefighter was killed while battling the flames, the carrier’s chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum said.
Recounting the ordeal, Thiruvananthapuram resident Abraham Thomas, who had gone to Dubai to attend a wedding, said the lights went off as soon as the flight landed. Throughout the flight, he said, there was no indication of any technical snag.
“At around noon, the pilot announced the flight would land in Dubai at 12.32 pm. After touching the ground, it seemed like the pilot tried to lift off again. I was at a window seat on the right side. When the aircraft landed, I saw an engine separate from the wing. The plane kept moving on the runway for about five minutes before coming to a halt. Suddenly, emergency doors opened and the crew asked everyone to escape. Panic-stricken passengers jostled at the exits to jump out,” Thomas said.
As smoke filled the plane, he said, many passengers felt like they were choking. Some sustained injuries when they jumped out of the aircraft, he said.
Another passenger, Sai Bhaskar, said the flight landed with the right wing touching the runway. “I heard a sound and the aircraft shook,” he said.
Bhaskar said the fight went up in flames a few minutes after the last person got down. “We ran away. About 40 metres behind us, fire engulfed the plane. It was a narrow escape. Passengers lost their luggage, but a few managed to take their handbags. At the airport, all passengers were taken care of and provided medical aid,” Bhaskar said.
The passengers and crew included 226 Indians.
Photographs on social media showed the plane lying crumpled on the tarmac with black smoke pouring from its upper section.
In Dubai, a man waiting for relatives on the flight said he had spoken to them by phone. “They said they’re safe and alright, but that they felt a great panic as the plane was on fire.”
Another man said his family had also told him they were OK and there had been a problem with the landing gear.
“It was actually really terrifying. As we were landing there was smoke coming out in the cabin,” passenger Sharon Maryam Sharji said. “People were screaming and we had a very hard landing. We left by going down the emergency slides and as we were leaving on the runway we could see the whole plane catch fire; it was horrifying.”
According to air traffic control recordings cited by Aviation Herald, a respected independent website monitoring air accidents, controllers at Dubai reminded the crew of the Boeing 777 to lower the landing gear as it came into approach.
Shortly afterwards, the crew announced they were aborting the landing to “go around,” a routine procedure for which pilots are well trained. But the aircraft came to rest near the end of the runway instead, Aviation Herald reported.
It was not clear whether the landing gear was extended when the aircraft touched the ground at 0845 GMT. A family of passengers who declined to be named said the equipment did not deploy and the jet landed on its belly.
Emirates airline initially said there were a total of 275 passengers and crew aboard the plane, a Boeing 777-300 delivered to the airline in 2003, but later updated that number to 282 passengers and 18 crew.
Both the airline and aircraft have a solid safety record. It is the first time an aircraft operated by Emirates appears to have been damaged beyond repair since it was founded in the 1980s and is only its third serious safety incident.
The crash is a blow to the Dubai carrier weeks after it was voted the world’s top airline by Skytrax at the Farnborough Airshow, taking the crown from Gulf rival Qatar Airways.
Emirates carried 51.3 million passengers in 2015 and is the world’s fourth largest carrier in terms of passenger numbers adjusted for the length of each trip.
It has a fleet of over 250 aircraft, including the world’s largest fleet of Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 jets, and uses its Dubai hub to link the United States or Europe to Asia.
Airline chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum said in a statement the flight had been involved in an “incident”.
“We do not have all the information but thankfully there were no fatalities among our passengers and crew,” he said.
Planemaker Boeing said in a statement it was monitoring the situation in Dubai and it would be working with Emirates to gather more information.
Judging by footage of the aircraft’s intact tail section, where the ‘black box’ flight recorders are located, vital voice and data recordings should be available for investigators.
Online weather reports before the crash reported Dubai was relatively windy, with dust blowing and “wind shear” reported on all runways. Wind shear is a potentially hazardous condition involving sudden and unpredictable changes in wind direction or speed.