Taiwan Jet Explodes Into Fire in Japan

NAHA, Japan --

Passengers used emergency slides to evacuate a China Airlines jet just minutes before the plane burst into a fireball Monday on the tarmac. All 165 people aboard escaped unhurt, including the pilot, who jumped from the cockpit at the last second.

Transport Ministry official Akihiko Tamura told reporters that airport traffic controllers had received no report from the pilot indicating anything was wrong with the Boeing 737-800.

"The fire started when the left engine exploded a minute after the aircraft entered the parking spot," Tamura said.

The plane burst into flames seconds after what the last crew member escaped from a rear door and the pilot jumped from the cockpit window, according to footage from national broadcaster NHK.

The aircraft skidded on the tarmac on its way from the runway to the gate after landing, starting a fire that prompted the emergency evacuation, according to China Airlines spokesman Sun Hung-wen.

"After the plane landed, there were flames, and I heard explosions a few times, then saw black smoke," Hideaki Oyadomari, an airport worker, told NHK. "We felt the hot air coming our way."

Japan's National Police Agency said terrorism was not suspected. Initial reports from ground personnel showed that a fuel leak from the right engine could have led to a series of explosions, according to another Transmport Ministry official, Fumio Yasukawa.

Local fire official Hiroki Shimabukuro said two passengers - a 7-year-old girl and a man in his 50s - were hospitalized because they felt unwell, but not because they were injured. A ground engineer was knocked off his feet by the force of the blast, but was not hurt, the ministry said.

The fire was put out about an hour later, leaving the aircraft charred and mangled.

Several passengers told NHK they were preparing to get off the plane after what seemed like an ordinary landing when they were suddenly told to use the emergency slides to evacuate.

Some said they saw smoke and flames entering the cabin and that there was a stampede to exit. Minutes later, many said, they heard explosions.

"I suddenly saw flames beside me, and everybody started rushing to get out," a male passenger told NHK. "People were pushing and shoving in panic," he said.

"I felt the boom of the explosion behind me as soon as I got off," a female passenger said.

Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration head Chang Kuo-cheng said authorities ordered China Airlines and its subsidiary Mandarin Airlines to ground their 13 other Boeing 737-800s pending a thorough inspection.

Japanese aviation authorities also ordered an emergency inspection of all Boeing 737-800 planes owned by Japanese airlines, as well as some 737-700 models that carry a similar engine.

China Airlines' 737-800 had CFM 56 engines, made by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation, a unit of General Electric Co., and France's Snecma, Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said. All 737-800s are built with the same engine.

Proulx said Boeing was prepared to send technical assistance if requested by the Japan Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission.

The Okinawa fire is a setback to China Airlines, which in recent years appeared to have improved on a troubled safety record among international carriers.

A China Airlines 747 crashed in 2002 as it flew from Taipei to Hong Kong, leading to 225 deaths, and some 450 people died in China Airlines accidents during the 1990s.

"We are prepared to do its best to get to the bottom of this incident," China Airlines president Zhao Guoshi told reporters at a press conference at Naha airport late Monday. "I apologize for the trouble we have caused our passengers."


Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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