Miracle of Toronto

Last updated at 11:26 03 August 2005

More than 300 passengers and crew have miraculously escaped death after their airliner skidded off a runway, plunged into a ravine and burst into flames just yards from a busy motorway during a storm.

Remarkably, everyone aboard Air France Flight 358 from Paris survived the crash at Toronto's Pearson airport by jumping to safety just seconds before fire engulfed the plane.

Seven Britons were among the 297 passengers who survived, but it is not yet known if any were among the injured. There were 12 crew on board.

Survivors spoke of darkness and panic as the plane skidded before bursting into flames.

"It was a hell of a roller coaster going into the ravine. The people around me, everyone was running like crazy just in case there was an explosion," crash survivor Roel Bramar told CBC Television.

"I was at the very back of the plane and saw that there was fire outside. I was the second person off the plane. Down the chute."

Passenger Gwen Dunlop, returning to Canada from a holiday in France, said: "It happened so quickly - it was a little bit like being in a movie.

"At some point the wing was off. The oxygen masks never came down. The plane was filling up with smoke."

She said one of the flight attendants tried to calm passengers and tell them that everything was OK.

"And yet the plane was on fire and smoke was pouring in."

Survivors flagged down cars

Dazed survivors made their way to 401 highway, the busiest freeway in Canada, which is a multi-lane road that adjoins Toronto's Pearson International Airport. They then flagged down commuters who had slowed down as flames and thick black smoke billowed from the wrecked plane.

Rescued passengers were taken to an airport hotel, and hustled away from the throngs of TV cameras and journalists.

Officials said about 24 people had suffered minor injuries.

Passengers on the plane included 104 Canadians, 101 French, 19 Italians, 14 Americans and eight Indians.

Air France senior executive vice president Jean-Francois Colin said it was too early to give the reasons for the accident and the cause would be decided by the investigations that would now take place.

Last night's crash in Canada was the first major incident to affect an Airbus A340 plane, the wings of which are built at Airbus UK's plant at Broughton, North Wales.

The Toulouse-produced aircraft has been in service since 1994, and Sir Richard Branson's airline Virgin Atlantic was among the first customers for the new plane.

"This is a generation of plane that has never seen a major incident and had had an impeccable record," said David Learmount, safety editor of Flight International Magazine.

Heavy rain

Speaking to the BBC, he went on: "This generation of airliners has never had an accident.

"I understand that the plane flew through very heavy rain. In circumstances such as these the pilot has an option of actually climbing away without landing."

Mr Learmount continued: "If aircraft do land in very heavy rain they can aquaplane in the same way that a car can in wet conditions on the road.

"The aircraft can literally slide across the water and this could explain when the aircraft went off the end of the runway."

The accident also ends a long period in which western major airliners have been accident-free.

The last major incident involving a western carrier was when an American Airlines plane crashed after taking off from New York's Kennedy Airport in November 2001.

A runway aircraft fire such as the one at Toronto brings back bitter memories of the Manchester air disaster of August 1985.

Then, more than 50 people died when strong winds exacerbated an engine fire on a British Airtours Aircraft operated by British Airways.

The fire on the Mediterranean-bound plane led to a demand for passengers to be given smoke hoods on planes.

The Civil Aviation Authority has over the years consistently looked into the smoke hood issue but has ruled that no suitable model has been available.

• Air France said friends and relatives of anyone wanting information on passengers should telephone a toll-free number - 0033 156 931000.

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