A deadly wall of flame hurtled down the aisle of the Singapore Airlines Boeing 747 when it crashed during takeoff Tuesday at Taipei airport, according to a survivor.
“The left wing seemed to hit something then it was just a big roller coaster ride,” British Steven Courtney, 45, was reported as saying by Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “A wall of flame came down the aisle. We tried to get out of one of the exits at ground level but it was jammed.”
His account seems to confirm the latest theory: that the jetliner hit something, perhaps a tire, on the runway as it was taking off. Other survivors and the flight commander also said the plane hit something, setting off the deadly chain of events.
Seventy-nine people were killed and 85 injured.
The death toll could rise since many of the injured suffered serious burns after the airliner burst into flames. One foreign passenger burned over 100 percent of the body had little hope for survival, a doctor at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital said.
“There were flames everywhere. People couldn’t breathe. Finally we managed to get out through an exit hatch at the front. It seemed to take a long time to get out,” Courtney said.
The Los Angeles-bound flight, SQ 006, was carrying 179 people, including 20 crew, when it crashed, broke into three parts and burst into flames at 11:18 p.m.
“I felt two hits and we twisted around twice,” said Tonya Joy, 37, of New Zealand. “I jumped out of the top and landed on the ground, so the doctors think there is something wrong with my spine. The weather was just awful. Flames came so fast on both sides of the plane.”
“It felt like we bumped into something huge,” said survivor Doug Villermin, 33, of New Iberia, La., standing outside a hospital after the crash, wrapped in a tunic and smoking a cigarette. John Diaz of Santa Monica, Calif., was one of the lucky ones who survived the crash. “We got out and just started running and then the whole thing blew up,” he said.
Something in the Runway? It wasn’t immediately clear what Flight SQ006 hit, but the collision wreaked havoc on the plane: Video footage showed the Boeing 747-400 spewing flames and thick black smoke despite the heavy rain.
Before bursting into flames, the plane apparently swerved off its runway and onto a spare runway that was being repaired, said Chou Kuang-tsan of the Aviation Safety Council, which investigates Taiwanese air accidents.
Chou would not speculate why the plane left the runway and what it might have hit, but local TV reports showed the wreckage of a construction crane and other battered equipment near the crash site.
Sources say the plane’s pilot, C. K. Foong of Malaysia, reported he saw something in his path and tried to take off to avoid it. It has not yet been determined where he was in the takeoff process, and if he even was at takeoff speed, when the plane crashed.
But it’s unclear, given the weather, whether there really was something on the runway or whether pilot, who joined the airline in 1979 and had 11,235 flight hours, just thought he saw something.
An airline official said investigators found a wheel at the scene that did not belong to the SIA plane and added that it was unlikely that weather or mechanical problems were to blame. A China Airways official denied initial reports that the jumbo jet had hit one of its planes on the ground.
It is the second major airplane disaster this year being linked to runway debris. In July, an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris, killing 113. Investigators believe the chain of events that brought the Concorde down began when the plane hit a strip of metal on the runway, bursting a tire.
The latest disaster also comes a year to the day after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while en route from New York to Cairo. That crash killed 217 people.
Sad Journey to Taipei
Singapore Airlines spokesman Rick Clements said 47 U.S. citizens and 55 Taiwanese were among the passengers. A flight will leave Thursday from Los Angeles to take U.S. relatives to Taiwan, he said, without elaborating on the nationalities of the survivors.
A State Department spokesperson said there were 22 American survivors accounted for. Some were hospitalized, while others were safe in hotels, the spokesperson said.
Besides the Americans and Taiwanese, airline spokesman James Boyd in Los Angeles said there also were 11 Singaporeans on board, 11 Indians, eight Malaysians, five Indonesians, four Mexicans, four British, two each from Thailand, New Zealand and Vietnam and one each from Australia, Canada, Cambodia, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Ireland and the Canary Islands/Spain.
Identifying the bodies was a major task. Officials said many of them were burned beyond recognition and would have to undergo DNA testing.
Clements said Singapore Airlines would provide all families of victims with $25,000 immediate compensation.
“We wish to express our sincere regret to all concerned,” said Singapore Airlines Chairman Michael Fam. “This is a tragic day for all of us.”
In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators to help Taiwan authorities probe the disaster. The eight-member NTSB team was expected to arrive in Taiwan on Thursday evening. A Boeing spokesman in Tokyo said the aviation giant had dispatched an investigation team to Taiwan, but did not elaborate.
The black box flight data recorders have been recovered, which should aid in the investigation.
Typhoon Xangsane Hits Taiwan
The storm pounding Taiwan, Typhoon Xangsane, had whirled closer to the island’s southern coast today and heavy rains have already begun soaking Taipei, the capital.
The typhoon was packing 90-mph winds and was expected to make landfall by Wednesday if it maintained its current course, the Central Weather Bureau said.
Earlier in the evening, the storm had prompted officials to set up disaster relief centers, cancel some flights, call off classes and raise land and sea warnings. Typhoon relief and coordinating centers were set up all over southern Taiwan, and officials warned residents against landslides and flash floods.
Singapore Airlines is considered one of the safest airlines worldwide and had never had a fatality since it was launched in 1972. The airline has set up a U.S. hotline for relatives seeking information about the crash. The toll-free number is 1-800-828-0508. It also has information on its Web site, www.singaporeair.com.
ABCNEWS’ Lisa Stark and Rebecca Cooper, ABCNEWS Radio, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.