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

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.

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.

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