Investigators enter jet wreckage in Denver

December 22, 2008 8:15:45 PM PST
Investigators climbed inside the cracked, charred wreckage of a Continental Airlines jet Monday, searching for clues about why the plane veered off a runway and slid nearly half a mile into a ravine. [HEAR IT: Hear fire department audio from shortly after the accident]
[SEE IT: Images from the wreckage of flight 1404]

The twin-engine Boeing 737-500 still sat in the snow-covered ravine where it came to rest after its aborted takeoff Saturday at Denver International Airport. Behind it, a 2,500-foot-long scar through the grass and snow marked the plane's path.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators conducted preliminary reviews of the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder on Sunday, agency spokesman Peter Knudson said.

No information has been released, but Knudson said "we do have good data" from the recorders. The NTSB said nothing has been ruled out as a potential cause.

Investigators planned to interview the captain and the first officer on Monday, but it wasn't immediately clear if that had happened by early evening. Continental spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said the captain was injured and was still hospitalized on Monday, but she declined to release his condition.

Both the pilot and the first officer had clean safety records with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. He wouldn't release their names.

FAA records show the plane, built in 1994, had to make an emergency landing in Denver in 1995 when one of its two engines failed, but the aircraft touched down safely and no injuries were reported. The engine was replaced.

The latest accident forced the 115 passengers and crew aboard Flight 1404 to flee through emergency exits as the plane burned. The jet had shed its left engine and both main landing gears. The entire right side of the jet was burned, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats.

Of the 38 people injured, five remained in Denver hospitals Monday, including the captain, Continental said. Hospital officials said one was in serious condition, one in fair condition and three in good condition.

The weather was clear and cold when the plane attempted to take off for Houston about 6:20 p.m. Saturday. Winds at the airport were 31 mph, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

"No other aircraft opted against taking off due to wind" before Flight 1404 tried to lift off, Gregor said.

The NTSB took reporters and photographers to the scene Monday afternoon. The charred right side of the plane was punctured by a jagged hole, and debris was strewn across the grassy slope.

Skid marks in the snow and scrapes in the ground showed that after veering off the runway, the plane crossed a flat grassy strip and a taxiway before speeding over an embankment, where the tracks disappear for a short distance -- indicating the plane may have gone airborne briefly.

The tracks reappear in a snowy bowl and continue up a small hill, across a paved access road and back down a small hill into the ravine, where the plane finally stopped, coming to rest on its belly.

Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport, said the plane came to a rest about 200 yards from one of the airport's four fire stations. Passengers walked out of the ravine in 24-degree cold and crowded inside the station, he said.

A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, Davis said.

"It didn't really sound like an explosion. It was more like a big thud," said Maria Trejos, 30, who was sitting on the right side of the plane with her husband, who had their 1-year-old son on his lap.

She told The Associated Press on Monday that she thought the plane was about to take off when it veered off the left side of the runway. She felt a bump and saw a fireball through the window, and it felt briefly as if they were airborne, but she said that may have been when the plane was dropping into the ravine.

Trejos then smelled fuel and thought, "I hope the plane doesn't explode."

At first, the cabin was eerily quiet, with no one screaming, she said, but then it quickly got hot from the fire and people began to panic when they saw smoke and flames.

"I was thinking, 'I don't want to burn. I don't want my baby or my husband to burn,"' said Trejos, who is also four months pregnant.

They scrambled onto a wing and slid to the ground. She said that their son has cuts on his legs and that she her husband are bruised and sore, but that all three are otherwise fine.

They were headed to Houston to visit her husband's family but instead went home to Pueblo West, about 100 miles south of Denver, happy to be alive.

"It's going to be the best Christmas ever," she said.

The runway reopened Monday night with permission from the NTSB, airport spokesman Jeff Green said.

The damaged plane was expected to remain in the ravine for several days, said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member.

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