Amazing Landing at London's Heathrow

A British Ariways plane crash landed well short of the runway.

LONDON, Jan. 17, 2007— -- The pilot of a British Airways jumbo jet packed with 152 people was credited with a miracle emergency landing at London's Heathrow Airport.

The giant Boeing 777 skimmed over London rooftops, just missed a taxicab and barely made it over a fence before plowing through a belly landing and skidding to a stop just short of Heathrow's southern runway.

When the crippled jet finally came to a halt, its emergency chutes spilled out and 136 passengers and 16 crew members were evacuated with only nine minor injuries.

As they walked away from the crash, the rattled passengers could see that the plane's underbelly was chewed up and both wings were severely damaged.

An airport worker who claimed to have spoken to the captain just after the crash told the BBC that the 390-ton plane abruptly lost all power as the pilot was preparing to land after a long flight from Beijing. The pilot then "glided it in across and lifted the nose up."

"He said to me he had no warning, absolutely nothing at all," the airport worker told the BBC. "It's just suddenly boom. It's just lost absolutely everything. It's a miracle. The man deserves an absolute medal as big as a frying pan."

The pilot wasn't immediately identified, but British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh said, "The captain of the aircraft is one of our most experienced and has been flying with us for nearly 20 years."

John Rowland, a taxi driver on a road near the runway described seeing the plane almost clip the airport's perimeter fence. "On its approach it took the runway too low, just missing the roof of my cab."

He said the plane's wheels appeared to collapse when it slammed down into a grassy area of the airport, it then tore through the grass until it collided with the runway.

"It crashed into the runway. Debris was flying everywhere. There was an enormous bang, and it skidded sideways," Rowland told the BBC.

Passengers said the plane was having a normal descent, and that the crisis happened so quickly that they were not told anything before the plane hit the ground.

"There was no indication that we were going to have a bad landing," passenger Jerime Ensinck told the BBC.

He called it "a very rough landing. We were told to get out as soon as possible. Then I noticed that the plane had missed the runway by about 100 meters -- a fairly close call," Ensinck said.

The performance of both flight and ground personnel has been praised in the handling of the incident.

"The emergency services were there very quickly," Ensinck said. "It went extremely smoothly. The air hostesses dealt with it very quickly, very professionally."

British Airways' chief executive issued a statement saying he was "very proud of the way our crew safely evacuated all 136 passengers."

One passenger looking back on the experience told the BBC, "today I win the lottery", when he realised what a narrow escape he had.

Aviation experts are surprised by today's emergency landing. The Boeing 777 has an impeccable record. There was no severe weather forecast for Heathrow today.

John Nance, an international air safety analyst told ABC News, "The lack of any weather problems at Heathrow, the first probability that you look at is fuel starvation -- the plane ran out of gas. Second, why that might have happened. Can be a very complex issue, and then the crew could have been as surprised as everybody else."

Steve Archer, an aircraft engineer, told ABC News that he doubted the plane simply ran out of gas. "There are too many backup systems on the aircraft for the pilot to be unaware that he was running out of fuel," he said. Archer admitted, however, he's mystified as to why the plane would lose all power so quickly.

David Learmont of Flight International speculated that "a major technical error may have caused the crash." In an interview with the BBC, Learmont said it was very unlikely that this was due to pilot error. "BA pilots don't make mistakes like that."

Robert Cullemore at Aviation Economics, a London-based aviation consultancy, said the pilot's efforts to keep the plane aloft prevented a catastrophe.

"If it had landed 200 meters shorter than it did, it may have hit the perimeter fence and obviously some other buildings and the car park. Clearly, we would be dealing with fatalities and obvious damage," Cullemore said.

When the jetliner crash landed, a jet carrying British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Virgin Chairman Richard Branson was about a half mile away waiting to take off.

Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch is investigating the crash and a spokesperson told ABC News, "these kinds of investigations take a few months".

The Associated Press contributed to this report