Dozens Injured in Flight 331 Crash in Jamaica

Most passengers released from area hospitals as NTSB investigates crash.

ByLEE FERRAN via logo
December 23, 2009, 9:16 AM

Dec. 23, 2009 — -- All but two of the 40-plus passengers injured in the American Airlines 331 crash in Kingston, Jamaica, Tuesday have been released from area hospitals as investigators take a closer look at what may have caused the nonfatal "runway excursion."

The Boeing 737-800, filled to capacity with 148 passengers and a crew of six, came down in heavy rain and overshot the runway at Norman Manley International Airport. After its landing gear collapsed and the plane started to break up, it finally slid to a stop less than 10 feet from the Caribbean Sea, The Associated Press reported.

"A passenger told me that the oxygen masks deployed when they heard the nose bang and they could see the fuselage breaking up," said Milton Walker of Radio Jamaica, who rushed to the scene. "And then the chute deployed and persons managed to escape."

Natalie Morales-Hendricks, a flight 331 passenger, said there were moments of chaos in the cabin during the rough landing.

"It was evident we were skidding," Morales-Hendricks told NBC. "And then the lights went out and we just buckled and bumped and things were falling out -- everybody's overhead baggage started to fall -- and literally it was like being in a car accident. People were screaming, I was screaming, covering my face and the next thing we know, we were at a standstill and that's when we could smell smoke."

Once outside, Morales-Hendricks said the passengers were "just milling around, freaking out."

"People were injured, you know. There was blood, and it wasn't apparent to me if everyone was out, but it looked like everyone got out. But it was a mess," Morales-Hendricks said.

Jamaica information minister Daryl Vaz told the AP that 44 passengers were taken to area hospitals with injuries ranging from broken bones to back pain. Most of the injuries were cuts and bruises, and none were life threatening, American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith told the AP.

The plane began its journey at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., before stopping at Miami International Airport then heading to Jamaica Tuesday night.

What Was the Role of Hydroplaning?

The plane came down in heavy rain and hydroplaning was likely a factor in the crash, aviation expert John Nance said.

"Whenever you have a situation like this where an airplane goes off the runway, you have a heavy rainstorm, and standing water on the runway, we at least probably will have some involvement of hydroplaning," Nance told "Good Morning America" today. "There's so much water that the tires are floating on a thin film of water, and you can't get traction to help stop."

The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to Jamaica to investigate the cause of the crash.

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, overshooting runways, or running off to the side, has been by far the most common cause of runway accidents over the past 14 years and account for a quarter of all airline accidents. There are almost 30 excursions every year for commercial flights.

From 1995 to 2008 there were 417 runway excursions, including 34 fatal accidents in which 712 people perished, according to the Flight Safety Foundation.

For new runways, the Federal Aviation Administration mandates a 1,000 foot "overrun" area to provide a safety buffer for excursions -- something it appears Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport did not have.

This morning another plane, a RyanAir jet, slipped off an icy runway in Scotland. No one was injured in that excursion.

ABC News' Lisa Stark contributed to this report.

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