American Airlines Jet Fire Forces Evacuation as 20 Injured

  • Passenger reports ‘huge explosion’ in comments to Chicago TV
  • Televised images show flames, billowing smoke, charred wing

An American Airlines jetliner caught fire while preparing for takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, sending columns of thick black smoke into the air as passengers fled on escape slides.

Twenty people were taken to hospitals for treatment of minor injuries ranging from bruises to hurt ankles, Juan Hernandez, district chief of emergency medical services for the Chicago Fire Department, said at a news conference Friday. American set the number of injured at seven travelers and one flight attendant. 

The Boeing Co. 767 had an engine malfunction just before the fire, said Leslie Scott, a spokeswoman for American. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration initially said the fire occurred after a tire burst and later issued a statement saying it happened “after experiencing a problem during takeoff.”

“There was a huge explosion on the right-hand side of the airplane,” passenger Hector Cardenas told the ABC television affiliate in Chicago. “Everyone was sort of panicking.”

Charred Wing

Cardenas said the plane was about to take off when the explosion occurred. The last ground speed was recorded at 115 knots, or 132 miles an hour, Flightradar24 posted on Twitter. The fire blackened one side of the plane, and pictures appeared to show the charred wing on that side drooping toward the ground.

Chicago Fire Department officials declined to comment on the cause of the blaze, which might not be determined for awhile, said Timothy Sampey, assistant deputy fire commissioner for airport operations.

The plane was carrying about 43,000 pounds of fuel and there was “a substantial fuel leak,” he said at the news conference. “There was a heavy volume of fire on the engine and all the way to the wing tip.”

“This could have been absolutely devastating if it happened later,” Sampey said.

Incident Investigation

The pilots aborted the takeoff, said the FAA, which will investigate. Flight 383, headed for Miami, carried 161 passengers and nine crew members. The National Transportation Safety Board also is sending three investigators to the scene, the agency said on Twitter.

One potential cause of jet engine explosions is a foreign object that gets sucked in, said Bill Waldock, a professor of aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, comparing the powerplant to a vacuum cleaner. Issues inside the engine have also led to explosions, said Waldock, who was speaking generally and didn’t have specific details about the Chicago incident.

Explosions can send shrapnel across the plane and rupture fuel tanks and fuel lines, he said. In the case of a Boeing 767 or Boeing 777, much of the fuel actually is stored in the wing in what’s called an integral fuel tank, or “wet wing,” Waldock said.

Separately, a FedEx Corp. plane burst into flames at about 6 p.m. in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after its landing gear collapsed following touchdown, the FAA said in an e-mailed statement. Both pilots escaped from the plane, according to the agency.

A photograph posted on Twitter by someone waiting for a flight at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International showed a ball of flames rising to twice the height of the DC-10 wide-body’s tail.

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