The pilot of a commuter plane that caught fire in flight was "either very lucky, very brave, or . . . very skilled," officials said after a crash landing that barely missed a crowded airport bar and injured 19 people.
Nineteen of the 40 people aboard the Horizon Air de Havilland Dash 8 were injured in the crash Friday night at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and one was in serious condition Saturday. Two passengers and their seats were thrown through the side of the plane. No one on the ground was hurt."Everyone was holding hands. I don't know who the man was next to me, but I sure must have broke his arm holding onto it," said passenger Wilma Swartzwelder, a Spokane nurse. She said the plane flew five or 10 minutes before she saw the right engine on fire.
The propeller-driven plane narrowly missed the airport control tower. Then it made a hard landing and careened into the end of the airport's B Concourse.
The plane crashed through baggage carts "like a bowling alley," then headed for the busy B Concourse Bar, said Douglas Chadd, 29, manager of a restaurant overlooking the B Concourse.
"If it would have been a few feet the other way, the nose would have went right into the bar, and this is their busiest night," Chadd said.
However, a wing snagged a passenger ramp and the nose swung around and poked into an empty Delta Air Lines gate where a flight had departed about 10 minutes earlier, he said.
Eight investigators were sent from the National Transportation Safety Board, along with board member Joseph Nall, to handle the investigation, said Ted Lopatkiewicz of the NTSB.
"Obviously, the focus (of the probe) is centered in the right engine," Nall said.
Horizon President John Kelly said the accident resulted in the first passenger injuries in the airline's seven-year history. He said the incident was the third in 19 months involving the turboprop engines on the Dash 8.
In June, an engine fire was detected shortly after takeoff, and in 1986 a plane returned to Sea-Tac when an engine malfunctioned, he said. The incidents involved different aircraft among the airline's 10 Dash 8s, Kelly said.
Officials at the de Havilland division of Boeing Canada and Pratt & Whitney Canada, manufacturer of the engines on the Dash 8, said in telephone interviews they knew of no recurrent problems with the aircraft or its engines.
Horizon Flight 2658 had just taken off on a flight from Seattle to Spokane with a full load of 37 passengers, plus three crew members, said Horizon spokeswoman Nancy Hamilton.
The plane was about three miles from the airport when pilot Carl Carlson reported "a hot engine," radio jargon for a fire, said Dick Meyer of the Federal Aviation Administration regional office in Seattle.
The plane "almost hit the (Sea-Tac) control tower," said Lee Fryer, duty officer at the FAA air traffic control center in Auburn. "The controllers thought he was going to hit it."
"They had a fire truck waiting and the flames were out in about 15 seconds," Fryer said.
"It could have been a lot worse," said air traffic controller Marvin K. Tobosa. "We consider the pilot either very lucky, very brave, probably very skilled. It was pretty quick."
Before the plane hit the ground, "there was very little talking," said Steve Lowenstam, 42, of Eugene, Ore. "I heard someone in front comforting someone else, but there were no screams."
When the plane hit, "I heard the boom. They told us to put our heads down and shield our faces. Everybody was real calm," said Ms. Swartzwelder.
The plane came down hard, careened across a runway, some grass and the tarmac, then hit the end of B Concourse. What passengers heard was "basically a piece of metal scraping concrete, a lot of bumps, a lot of noise," Weber said.
Carol Watt, 43, and Steve Lowenstan, 42, both of Eugene, Ore., said two passengers and their seats were ejected from the plane on impact.
"After we crashed, the whole seat to our right was thrown out the side of the plane," Lowenstan said.
Tina Mankowski of Harborview, where most of those aboard the plane were taken, said most passengers were from north-central Idaho.