Denver Fire Department Division Chief Patrick Hynes called it "surreal." The fire burned the entire right side of the plane, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats below.
Thirty-eight people suffered injuries including broken bones, and two were in critical condition with fractures after the Saturday evening accident, officials said.
Passenger Mike Wilson of Denver described a chaotic scramble to leave the burning plane on updates he posted on Twitter.com from the airport using his cell phone.
"By the time the plane stopped we were burning pretty well and I think I could feel the heat even through the bulkhead and window," he wrote. "I made for the exit door as quickly as I could, fearing the right wing might explode from the fire. Once out, I scrambled down the wing."
The 107 passengers and five crew members made it out through slides, and firefighters put out blaze quickly, said airport spokesman Jeff Green.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known. The weather in Denver was cold but not snowy when Continental Flight 1404 took off from Denver International Airport for Houston around 6:20 p.m.
The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to be airborne, Day said. Debris was left scattered on the runway, with the plane about 200 yards away.
Denver International Airport manager of aviation Kim Day said travelers should expect delays Sunday, a busy travel day.
National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration inspectors were on the scene.
Continental is working with passengers to help them reach their destinations. A hotline has been set up for concerned family members at 1-800-621-3263.
Slideshow archive | ABC13 wireless | Help solve crimes