Plane that caught fire in Vegas was accelerating for takeoff

By KIMBERLY PIERCEALL and SALLY HO
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Officials released more details Wednesday on a dramatic British Airways airplane fire in Las Vegas as they investigate how an aircraft accelerating for takeoff could suddenly erupt into flames — or whether it could happen again.

The London-bound plane was speeding down the runway Tuesday afternoon when it caught fire, forcing the pilot to hit the brakes. The blaze sent smoke pouring from an engine and led the aircraft’s crew and 157 passengers to flee down emergency slides, which fire officials said deployed properly.

At a news conference, officials lauded the emergency response but noted more people were hurt than previously reported. Twenty-seven people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries, most with cuts, bruises, burns and scrapes from the evacuation slides. At least two complained of smoke inhalation.

The evacuation took only minutes and appeared orderly, with some passengers even making it out with their luggage. They then hurried across the tarmac as flames leaped from the Boeing 777-200 and dark black smoke billowed.

The radio call from the plane’s pilot to the air traffic control tower was brief, calm and to the point.

The pilot can be heard saying "mayday, mayday" before he asks for firefighting help. A moment later, he calmly tells the tower: "We are evacuating on the runway. We have a fire. I repeat. We are evacuating."

Clark County fire officials said they had fire engines rolling within 45 seconds of a 4:13 p.m. call from the tower. They had water on the fire within two minutes, and by 4:18 it was out.

Fire officials said it could have been a lot worse but the blaze was confined to the left engine, and there was no wheel or brake fire.

"That aircraft was full of fuel," said Fire Capt. Mike Atchley, among the first of 53 firefighters at the scene.

A National Transportation Safety Board team was traveling to Las Vegas from Washington, D.C., to investigate, agency spokesman Eric Weiss said. Preliminary reports usually are issued within about a week, and a complete investigation in unusual or precedent-setting cases can take more than a year.

"We’re calling it an engine fire," Weiss said. "We’re interested in the exact chain of events."

The plane had two GE90 engines made by GE Aviation, and the company said heat distress was evident on the left engine and fuselage.

On social media, photos and videos showing passengers who deplaned with their rolling luggage and personal items were talked about and mocked, although the evacuation didn’t appear to be affected by people taking their belongings.

Passenger Karen Bravo, 60, of Las Vegas, said she happened to have her purse, and some other passengers farther back in coach had time to grab their carry-on luggage while waiting to evacuate. Checked bags were left behind.

"It would be like if your whole house was on fire, and you had to go out the door," she said.

The Association of Flight Attendants, which does not represent the British Airways crew, said the workers would have encouraged passengers to leave without their belongings for efficiency. The union said it has called for updated evacuation standards to match the latest cabin conditions, as more people fly with carry-on luggage and personal electronics.

The checked bags on the British Airways flight weren’t destroyed, but passengers hadn’t gotten them back as of Wednesday morning. They were told another plane was on its way and they should be departing for London later in the day.

Video of the evacuation taken from the terminal showed people running from the plane moments after the slides unfurled.

Aron Meltzner, who shot the footage as he waited to board his flight to Burbank, California, said the evacuation seemed so rapid that he worried there might still be people trapped on the plane.

"They just stopped coming out, and it just seemed like it happened too quickly," Meltzner said.

British Airways said it was providing passengers with hotels and whatever else they might need, and added the safety of its customers and crew is a top priority.

The crippled aircraft was towed to an airport apron, away from terminals.

The Federal Aviation Administration delayed flights to Las Vegas from some airports for more than two hours to slow the flow of planes while the disabled plane made two of the airport’s four runways inaccessible. One of the runways reopened about 2 1/2 hours after the fire.

Las Vegas’ airport is the ninth-busiest in the U.S. and had nearly 43 million passengers last year. The airport has been taking steps to accommodate more international travelers seeking direct flights to Europe and Asia, including adding new gates to accommodate wide-body double-decker jets.

——

Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and Anna Johnson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.