Weather a Factor in Air France Crash in Toronto, Black Boxes to be Retrieved

TORONTO (AP) -- Investigators said Wednesday that a heavy rainstorm accompanied by lightning and strong winds was a factor that caused an Air France jet to skid off a Toronto runway and burst into flames, prompting 309 passengers and crew to slide down escape chutes.

The black boxes of Flight 358 from Paris will be retrieved Wednesday, investigators said. The plane skidded off the runway at Lester B. Pearson International Airport after landing at about 4 p.m. Tuesday in a pounding storm.

The airport was under a ''red alert,'' which indicates potential for lightning but does not prevent planes from landing or taking off, officials said.

Brian Lackey, vice president of operations for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said the Airbus A340 had enough fuel to divert to Montreal or another airport where the weather was better, but ''that's the pilot's decision.''

''It was definitely an extreme storm, something we haven't seen in a long time,'' Lackey said. ''We're very, very grateful that the situation turned out as well as it did.''

Air France said 22 people were injured, while Toronto airport officials said 43 were hurt. The wreckage of the jetliner smoldered Wednesday near a busy highway in what a Paris newspaper called ''The miracle of the Air France Airbus.''

The evacuation of more than 300 people took less than two minutes, with a co-pilot the last to leave the flaming wreckage, airport Fire Chief Mike Figliola said.

Figliola said three-quarters of the passengers and crew aboard the plane left the wreckage in the 52 seconds it took for emergency crews to arrive.

''The crew did a great job, they're trained to get the people off,'' Figliola said.

At Air France headquarters in Roissy, France, airline chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta praised the crew.

''I don't know if we should speak of a miracle ... but above all the professionalism of the crew,'' Spinetta said Wednesday.

He said the co-pilot, who was in charge of the landing, had 10,700 hours of flying time, and the 57-year-old pilot had 15,000 hours.

Spinetta said Air France bought the aircraft new on Sept. 7, 1999. It was last serviced July 15 and had logged 28,418 flight-hours and 3,711 takeoffs and landings, he said.

Spinetta said it was too early to determine the cause of the crash but promised that Air France would be ''totally transparent'' in its inquiries into the first crash of an Airbus A340 in its 13 years of commercial service.

The wreckage of the plane smoldered Wednesday just off Highway 401, and Ontario police asked drivers to keep moving and not stare at the remains of the aircraft. Police reported two accidents Tuesday involving gawkers.

The GTAA said Pearson airport was resuming normal operations Wednesday, but delays and cancellations were expected.

Spinetta said passengers would be compensated for all the ''physical, moral and material damage'' they had suffered.

Two dozen Air France officials, including a medical team and a psychologist, flew with Spinetta to Toronto. A separate team of experts - including six from Airbus, three from the French accident investigation bureau and three from Air France - headed to Toronto earlier, Spinetta said.

Shares in Air France-KLM were down nearly 2 percent in early afternoon trading in Paris, while Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. was slightly higher.

The first sign of trouble Tuesday came minutes before landing when the pilot aborted an initial attempt to land the plane because of the storm and powerful winds. About a minute before the plane landed, as it approached the airport for a second time, the lights in the cabin went out, passenger Olivier Dubois said.

''Just before touching ground, it was all black in the plane, there was no more light, nothing,'' he said.

As the wheels touched down, passengers - their nerves frayed by the darkness inside and outside the cabin and flashes of lightning - burst into applause.

But then the jet thudded on landing, skidded off the runway and burst into flames, passengers recounted.

''It happened so quickly; it was a little bit like being in a movie,'' said Gwen Dunlop, of Toronto, who was returning from a vacation in France.

Dunlop said some passengers went down emergency chutes, while others just jumped out on their own.

''We were all trying to go up a hill; it was all mud and we lost our shoes. We were just scrambling, people with children ...,'' Dunlop said

Some of the 297 passengers and 12 crew members who evacuated reached the nearby highway crowded with rush hour travelers.

''It was chaotic,'' police Sgt. Craig Platt. ''We were trying to determine where the passengers had disembarked. It came to our attention through calls through citizens who were traveling on highway 401, which borders the airport to the south, that some passengers made their way to the highway area. Thankfully, the drivers on highway 401 stopped and offered their assistance.''

Several hours after the crash, passengers in red blankets were taken on buses to the airport Sheraton hotel to meet relatives and friends. Some were distressed that they had to go through customs before being reunited.

Chris Yates, an aviation specialist with Jane's Transport magazine, said the A340 has a very good safety record and weather appeared to be the cause of the accident.

''You can never account for weather,'' Yates said. ''A thunderstorm can happen anywhere - it comes down to the judgment of the air traffic controller and the skill of the pilot to determine whether it's appropriate to land or to divert elsewhere.''

The most serious plane crash at Canada's busiest airport occurred more than 30 years ago. In 1970, an Air Canada DC-8 jet en route from Montreal to Los Angeles went down north of the airport, killing all 109 people aboard.

The last major jet crash in North America was on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost part of its tail and plummeted into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people. Safety investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot moving the rudder too aggressively.