By Tom Ozimek
A Japanese passenger plane with 379 occupants on board burst into flames Tuesday after colliding with a Coast Guard aircraft on the runway at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, with video showing terrified passengers inside as the inferno raged outside their windows.
Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito told reporters on Jan. 2 that all passengers aboard Japan Airlines flight JAL-516 were safely evacuated before the plane was engulfed in flames.
Mr. Saito added that the pilot of the Coast Guard plane also managed to get to safety, but five crew members died.
Footage of the incident broadcast on local television and social media showed a massive eruption of fire and smoke from the side of the Japan Airlines plane as it taxied on the tarmac shortly after landing.
The plane then rolled down the runway with its wing on fire, leaving a long trail of burning fuel in its wake.
Footage about an hour later showed the plane completely engulfed in flames, with the fuselage broken in two amid the fiery mess.
Dramatic video from inside the cabin showed nervous occupants waiting to be evacuated as the fire raged outside the windows.
All the passengers got out of the burning plane safely, with footage showing them sliding down an inflatable escape slide as the damaged plane showered sparks and continued to burn.
‘It Was a Miracle’
Tokyo resident Tsubasa Sawada, 28, who was returning from a holiday in Sapporo with his girlfriend, thought they might not make it out alive.
“I really thought I was going to die,” he told Reuters.
“After the accident happened, I was laughing a bit at first when I could see some sparks coming out (of the engine), but when the fire started, I realized it was more than just something.”
Video from inside the cabin showed flight attendants urging passengers to remain calm.
Satoshi Yamake, 59, was returning to Tokyo after visiting relatives in his hometown. Mr. Yamake said that the flight crew quickly deployed the evacuation chutes and helped people disembark in an orderly way.
“The cabin crew must have done an excellent job. There don’t seem to be any carry-ons. It was a miracle that all the passengers got off,” said Paul Hayes, director of air safety at UK-based aviation consultancy Ascend by Cirium.
A Japanese transport ministry official told reporters at a briefing that the evacuation was “conducted appropriately.”
Mr. Sawada said there was an explosion on the plane around 10 minutes after being evacuated.
“I can only say it was a miracle. We could have died if we were late,” he said.
Japanese authorities said an investigation has been launched into the circumstances around the fiery crash, which aviation experts say is highly unusual. Better ground tracking and enhanced safety procedures at airports have drastically reduced the number of accidents caused by runway collisions, which were once a relatively common safety problem.
Haneda is one of the busiest airports in Japan, and many people travel over the New Year holidays.
Meanwhile, at U.S. airports, there have been several near misses this year, prompting a $100-plus million investment to prevent runway accidents and the creation of a panel to investigate the problem of air traffic controller fatigue.
There have been several near-miss incidents this year, including in Boston, Honolulu, New York, and Washington.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), some of the incidents involved apparent controller mistakes and could have been catastrophic.
In one near-miss incident at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas in February, the air traffic controller involved was working an overtime shift during a six-day workweek, according to the findings of an investigation by the NTSB.
The FAA said in August that it would spend another $121 million to mitigate runway incursions and support airport infrastructure projects, including reconfiguring taxiways and installing new lighting systems.
It also began a monthly training series for its air traffic controller workforce, all in a bid “to reach our goal of zero close calls,” according to Tim Arel, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.
More recently, the FAA convened a panel to investigate the problem of fatigue in air traffic controllers, who are stretched thin and putting in mandatory overtime due to staffing shortages.
“The three-member panel will examine how the latest science on sleep needs and fatigue considerations could be applied to controller work requirements and scheduling,” the FAA, the government body responsible for the safety of air travel, said in a Dec. 20 announcement.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.