Government officials were trying to learn Tuesday how two Northwest airliners crashed on a runway at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in fog and rain, causing a DC-9 to burst into flames, killing eight and injuring 21.

Eight people were killed and 21 others were injured Monday afternoon when the right wing of a larger Northwest jet on a takeoff roll hit the fuselage of the DC-9 just behind the co-pilot's seat, causing the smaller plane to burst into flames.The pilot of the smaller jet may have missed a turn onto a taxiway, rolling instead onto Runway 3-Center, where the crash occurred at about 1:45 p.m., authorities said.

Tony Dresden, a spokesman for the Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the pilot of the DC-9 was confused about his location and gave the tower inaccurate information. He told the Detroit News that controllers were allowed to review the tower tape Monday and had briefed him on its contents.

"The DC-9 pilot became lost on the runways," Dresden said. "The pilot gave the ground controller erroneous information about his position and turned right onto the runway" where the 727 was taking off.

"At the very last moment, the pilot realized where he was and ground control told him to exit the runway," Dresden said. "But it was obviously too late."

If the DC-9 had not begun turning, the planes "would have collided nose-to-nose and everybody would have died," the Detroit Free Press quoted an airport maintenance worker as saying.

A team of investigators fromthe National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site Monday night and boarded the burned-out remains of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 for an initial inspection, said NTSB spokesman Alan Pollock.

Pollock said the team was taking a closer look at the DC-9 Tuesday following an early morning organizational meeting. The on-site investigation will take four or five days, but it will be months before an official cause is determined, he said.

The victims were all aboard Northwest Flight 1482, a DC-9 bound for Pittsburgh with 39 passengers and five crew members. The dead included seven passengers and a Northwest flight attendant. The injured, mostly from Pennsylvania, were taken to five area hospitals.

Northwest spokesman Bob Gibbons identified the pilot of the DC-9 as William Lovelace, 52, a 24-year veteran based in Detroit who has been captain for 11 years.

The pilot of the 727 was identified as Robert Oullette, 42, of Dallas, a seven-year veteran based in Detroit.

Gibbons said one of the eight people killed was Heidi Jost, 43, a Dearborn, Mich., native with 22 years of service as a flight attendant. The other seven were passengers, and their names were not released. The eight bodies were taken to the Wayne County morgue.

Authorities said the DC-9 was on the ground when it was clipped by Northwest Flight 299. The larger Boeing 727-200, bound for Memphis carrying 145 passengers and eight crew members, was just lifting its nose into the air.

The DC-9 erupted in flames and quickly became a charred hulk with most of the top of its passenger cabin burned away. The 727-200 landed immediately, and its passengers suffered only minor injuries.

The 727-200 was traveling approximately 140 mph when it clipped the DC-9, which was standing still, aviation sources said.

The investigation is being headed by John Lauber, 47, an aviation disaster expert and veteran NTSB member. Lauber also presided over the investiagation into the 1987 crash of Northwest Flight 255 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that killed 156 people, including two on the ground. The only survivor aboard that plane was a 4-year-old girl.

John Izzo, 41, of Pittsburgh, a passenger on the DC-9, helped the injured from the flaming fuselage and was the last to leave the slushy runway. He said he dragged a passenger he knew only as Joe, a diabetic who lost a finger and broke a leg in the crash, as he "watched flames devour the plane."

"Then the rain came, a three- to five-minute downpour of freezing rain," Izzo said. "All I could do was cover Joe's face with my body."

Fred Geyer, a passenger on the DC-9, said, "We thought the engine exploded. It happened so darn quick. Because the plane wasn't so full, it was easy to get off. I looked back and all I could see was a big ball of flame."

Tom Center, a passenger on the 727-200, said people aboard "looked out the window and noticed that part of the wing was gone."

"There wasn't a lot of emotion at first," Center said. "But then we got off and looked down the runway and that's when we saw the smoke from the other plane. That's when the feeling started coming that this was more than just a little thing."