The emergency evacuation of a wide-body airliner in Chicago was anything but orderly.
As flames engulfed the right wing, passengers screamed and clambered over seats even before the American Airlines jet came to a stop on the runway after the aborted takeoff, ignoring flight attendants’ pleas to stay seated. Within seconds, people were surging onto the runway even though the engine was still blasting exhaust, sending them rolling like tumbleweeds.
“Although everyone successfully evacuated, the investigation revealed ways that the evacuation could have been improved,” U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said as the agency opened a meeting to conclude its investigation.
No one died in the Oct. 28, 2016 incident as Flight 383 prepared for takeoff, but the severity of the fire and the chaotic evacuation made it one of the most serious aviation incidents in recent years. It has also given the NTSB a platform to raise long-standing concerns about aircraft evacuations.
The NTSB is preparing at its meeting to adopt recommendations to reduce the risks of emergency evacuations, as well as preventing the initial engine failure that led to the fire.
The Boeing Co. 767-300 bound for Miami was accelerating for takeoff at O’Hare International Airport when its right engine exploded, spraying metal debris. After reaching 154 miles (248 kilometers) per hour, pilots hit the brakes and stopped as leaking fuel ignited and engulfed the right wing.
An imperfection in the metal used to make a spinning disk within the engine caused it to weaken and break apart, the NTSB said in documents it released earlier.
U.S. aviation regulators and aircraft manufacturers have taken steps in recent decades to improve passenger safety during evacuations, such as reducing the flammability of plane interiors and making seats more impact-resistant. But the Chicago incident highlights how human behavior and the chaos of an emergency still creates risk. Crashes on or near the ground during takeoff and landing killed more people around the world than other accident causes from 2007 through 2016, according to Boeing.
With the plane stopped on the runway and a fireball engulfing the American plane’s right wing, poor communication and panic dominated, according to NTSB documents.
Flight attendants and pilots are supposed to coordinate an evacuation, but attendants reported they could not reach the cockpit. The captain told investigators the evacuation checklist the cabin crew was required to follow was “cumbersome” and slowed the cockpit crew’s response.
Passengers repeatedly failed to follow crew instructions. In multiple cases, they took luggage with them, which airlines prohibit because it can slow an evacuation or block aisles. In one case, an attendant tried unsuccessfully to wrestle a large bag away from a woman after she refused to leave it, according to NTSB records. The attendant said she gave up because the dispute was slowing the evacuation.
“Let me say a word to the flying public,” Sumwalt said. “Follow your crew’s instructions. Things can be replaced. People can’t.”
A 77-year-old man suffered multiple broken bones and swelling on the scalp, according to NTSB. Twenty others, including one crew member, reported more minor injuries, according to NTSB. The plane was carrying 161 passengers and nine crew members.
The fire was so hot that it burned through the fuselage and the tip of the wing slumped onto the runway.
“American is proud of the way its pilots and flight attendants handled this event,” American Airlines said in a statement. “The flight attendants performed a successful evacuation of all passengers and crew, despite concerns for their own personal safety. The cabin crew’s judgment, skill, and self-discipline likely prevented significant injuries.”
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