GRAPEVINE, Texas (AP) - The first reports from the control tower indicated the crash was "non-survivable."
The Boeing 727 skipped through a dry, rock-hard field off the end of a runway, lost its right wing, turned 90 degrees and caught fire."There was a humongous fireball. I didn't think anybody had made it," said Mary Centron, a toll booth worker who also witnessed the fiery crash of a Delta Air Lines jumbo jet three years ago here.
Yet one by one, passengers crawled and clawed their way to daylight, some through doors, other through cracks in the aluminum shell of this Delta jet, Flight 1141 of Wednesday.
Some helped mothers get their babies out. The pilot, pinned in the cockpit under a pile of debris, kept telling passengers, "Slow down. Watch your step."
Somehow, 95 survived. One woman ran to a road and flagged down a ride back to the terminal. Another man said he's been hurt worse shaving. Just 24 hours after the crash, 62 people had been treated at hospitals and released.
Thirteen people died. But experts and officials who specialize in dealing with disaster called the relatively low death toll a miracle.
"I had expected fewer survivors," said Julia Wells, a Parkland Hospital emergency-disaster team nurse who arrived by helicopter. "When you see a plane that looks like that, you don't expect that many to be walking around."
While the National Transportation Safety Board evaluates the cause of Flight 1141's disaster, investigators say they also are studying why so many survived.
"It's a particularly important opportunity for accident investigators," said U.S. Transportation Secretary James Burnley.
Rescue workers credit their experience of the Delta crash three years ago with preparing them for a fast, efficient effort. The NTSB had criticized the response to the crash of Delta flight 191, saying no coordinated effort was in place to handle the victims.
"There's no comparison. Everything went so smoothly," said Texas Department of Public Safety Cpl. Bill Taylor.
"When we got here," paramedic supervisor Mike Sympson said, "it was click, click, click."
And speed of evacuation, whether through the work of rescue workers or the calm and capabilities of those on the plane, may have been the key.
"It appears we got a majority of the passengers out before the fire really set in," said Oris Dunham, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. "Most of the fire occurred after the plane was evacuated."
Those on board said somehow, calm prevailed. Passengers waited in line to crawl through a hole in the fuselage, and helped each other out. Smoke filled the cabin, some crawled on the floor. Many could see the ominous orange flames of burning jet fuel.
"It was kind of surprising," said Andy Dyer, a passenger who was on his way to help fight forest fires in Montana. "There wasn't any screaming hardly at all. It was real quiet. I think everybody was aware of what was going on."
All but two who died were found in the rear of the aircraft, many by an exit door that would not open. In fact, it took workers one hour Thursday to jar the door loose.
The plane hit the ground at the tail, investigators said. Fuel from the ruptured right wing is thought to have sprayed the rear and touched off the fire. The right engine was found 100 feet away. The cockpit section of the 727 broke open, fire burned through the plane's skin and melted the plastic windows.
Yet the plane had come to rest without hitting any structures, like two water tanks several hundred yards ahead. It was a similar water tank that caused Delta 191 to break up and explode, investigators said. That crash killed 137 people.
For those back in the Delta terminal, it seemed horrifyingly obvious what had happened. A cloud of black smoke, and eventually live television pictures of the charred carcass of an airplane had most, including relatives of passengers, assuming the worst.
"My husband was on the plane," JoAnn Waugh of Dallas cried to a chaplain at the terminal.
Later, she sprinted for an exit, racing to a nearby hospital where her husband, Penn, was being treated for minor injuries.
"I'm the luckiest person in the world," she shouted as she ran. "God is so good."