Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The crash of Continental Flight 1404: Part 2, Evacuation details

by B. N. Sullivan

This is the second in a two-part series about the post-crash conditions and evacuation of Continental Airlines Flight 1404, a Boeing 737-500 that crashed and burned following a runway excursion at Denver on December 20, 2008. Part 1, Post-crash conditions in the cabin, is here.

This narrative is based on summaries of interviews with individuals who were on board the accident aircraft, provided by the NTSB [link below]. Those individuals included two Continental Airlines pilots who were on board as passengers while dead-heading back to their base. In this narrative, the dead-heading captain is referred to as DHC, and the dead-heading first officer is referred to as DHFO. [Note: The NTSB has not released summaries of interviews with the flight attendants from CO Flt 1404.]

After the aircraft came to a stop in a ravine alongside runway 34R at Denver International Airport, both pilots on the flight deck were temporarily incapacitated by their injuries and shock. The flight attendants initiated an evacuation and hustled the passengers out of the burning plane, with the help of the dead-heading pilots.

This part of the story was told most compellingly and in great detail by the DHFO, who had been in seat 8D. He said an aft flight attendant tried to call the cockpit a couple of times but got no response. The flight attendants looked out the windows and made the decision to evacuate. They did not go out the right side of the aircraft because of the fire "and it was already melting."

The DHFO described panels falling and wires "coming from the ceiling." He used the words "panic and chaos" to describe the behavior of the passengers as they pushed and shoved toward the exits. He said because of the fire "it was the most extreme human behavior he had ever seen and frantic was not the word for it."

Quoting from the DHFO's interview summary:
He said the cabin was well illuminated because of the fire – the whole wing and wing root were on fire – which was most noticeable where he was sitting and over the wing exit. He said that forward of the bulkhead, he could see light coming into first class and also aft.

He unbuckled his seat belt, turned left and the male passenger sitting in the exit row had the door open “ASAP.” He knew what he was doing.

He said there was a tremendous confluence of passengers trying to exit through the over-wing exit. Five people were trying to get out for everyone one that got out. No one wanted to be second.

He could not say how extreme the panic was. He said that the windows were melting and popping. Passengers were screaming “we’re gonna burn” and “it’s gonna explode.”

He said lots of people were trying to get out at the same time. Passengers were climbing over seats. It seemed there were 30 people trying to get out of the hole at the same time.

He told people to calm down, the aircraft was not going to explode, get through and keep moving. He said there was too much panic and his instructions fell on deaf ears...

He looked forward and saw an empty airplane. He saw the first class flight attendant standing on one leg and [she] motioned for us to come forward. He said the aisles aft and forward were packed so he dove across seat tops and used the “army crawl.” He grabbed the last two ladies in the aisle and got them to the front to get out...
After helping the ladies evacuate, the DHFO re-entered the aircraft and saw that the two pilots were emerging from the flight deck, both obviously in pain. He helped them to exit through the L1 door, and then came back for the first class flight attendant to help her, since she had an injured ankle.

After helping the injured flight attendant off the plane, the DHFO returned inside one more time.
He saw the deadheading captain in the aisle and the male aft galley flight attendant. The plane started to fill with smoke.

They met in the middle over the wing and started looking for anyone else on the airplane because there were a lot of lap children on the flight. The male aft flight attendant said it was all clear in the back. The deadheading captain asked if he was sure, he said yes, and the captain told him to go back and check one more time.
By that time, the fire was coming up through the floor and they were concerned that the center fuel tank might blow. The DHC said in his interview that by the time they left the aircraft "the windows were starting to melt" and he feared there would soon be a breach. He "commanded that it was time to get off."

They left and got as far away from the aircraft as they could, stopping to again assist the injured forward flight attendant. In his interview, the DHFO told the NTSB:
[The first class flight attendant] was in a lot of pain and could not get up. He picked her up because the fire got bigger. He said the center tank gave way and a river of fuel ran north-south toward the nose and fire was coming behind it. It was starting to “really light off.” The entire cabin was on fire.
Later in the interview, the DHFO said that what stood out in his mind was the composure of the flight attendants. He said he was "humbled by what they did" to get everyone off the airplane. He said that the first class flight attendant was "stoic" -- despite being injured herself, she was very matter of fact and told passengers to drop everything and keep moving.

It was the same in the back, he said. The male aft flight attendant practically "walked through fire to save people" -- not literally, he clarified, but the fire was encroaching. He said the aft flight attendant "could have turned and run but he still searched every row and searched through pillows, blankets and luggage on the floor to make sure no one was there" disregarding his own safety.

He said "the flight attendants were real heroes."

Sounds to me like the flight attendants and the dead-heading pilots all were heroes. All of them deserve high praise for their exemplary performance during this emergency.

Here is the link to the NTSB Interview Summaries related to the crash of CO 1404 at Denver (91-page 'PDF' file).

Here is the link to the NTSB Docket listing all of the public documents related to this accident that have been released to date.

Here is a link to a collection of photos of Continental Flight 1404 wreckage, from TheDenverChannel.com web site.

[Photo Source]

RELATED: Click here to view all posts about Continental Flt 1404 on Aircrew Buzz.