Ball of Fire

Amazing story out of Naha, Okinawa; apparently 165 people were able to escape just seconds before their airplane burst into flames. No one was even injured.

A China Airlines jetliner exploded into flames Monday as it parked at Okinawa’s Naha airport after arriving from Taiwan, but all 157 passengers and eight crew members aboard escaped unhurt moments earlier, officials said.

A China Airlines jetliner explodes into flames shortly after landing at Naha airport Monday morning. Below, the Boeing 737-800’s shattered remains sit on the tarmac after the fire had been extinguished. Everyone on board managed to safely evacuate. RYUKYU SHINPO / KYODO PHOTOS

Police said terrorism was not suspected.

The passengers — including two infants — and crew members fled the Boeing 737-800 on inflated emergency slides before the plane burst into a fireball, transport ministry official Akihiko Tamura said.

The evacuation was completed within 90 seconds after the captain ordered passengers to get out of the plane, he said.

Nobody was injured. Two passengers — a 7-year-old girl from Hong Kong and a 57-year-old man from Taiwan — were taken to a hospital because they were not feeling well, and not because of specific injuries, officials said.

An engine fuel leak is the suspected cause of the fire, but China Airlines is still investigating, the officials said. The National Police Agency said terrorism was not suspected.

Tamura quoted China Airlines officials as saying the fire started when the engine below the right wing exploded.

The passengers included 23 Japanese nationals. One of the cabin attendants is Japanese.

The plane departed Taipei at 9:23 a.m. and landed at Naha at 10:27 a.m. The fire broke out at 10:35 a.m., according to airport officials. The fire was put under control at 11:37 a.m., firefighters said.

According to the transport ministry, reports from China Airlines as of 5 p.m. said a ground crew member spotted an oil leak on the engine at 10:32 a.m. when the plane had stopped at its assigned spot in the parking area.

He immediately reported the leak to the captain and requested that he order an emergency evacuation.

The control tower spotted smoke at 10:34 a.m. and immediately dispatched firefighters.

A 28-year-old male Japanese passenger who was aboard the plane said he saw smoke as he was retrieving his carry-on baggage, and added the plane exploded into flames two to three minutes after he and his wife escaped.

By the time the fire was extinguished, the fuselage had collapsed.

NHK showed footage of firefighters hosing the evacuated plane with fire retardants as flames and black smoke billowed from the fuselage.

“After the plane landed, there were flames, and I heard explosions a few times, then saw black smoke,” airport worker Hideaki Oyadomari said. “We felt the hot air coming our way.”

Several passengers interviewed by NHK said they were suddenly told to use the emergency slides to evacuate as they were preparing to get off the plane after what appeared to be a routine landing.

Taiwanese Civil Aeronautics Administration head Chang Kuo-cheng said authorities have ordered China Airlines and its subsidiary, Mandarin Airlines, to ground their 13 other Boeing 737-800s pending a thorough inspection.

“If there was fire, it might have something to do with an oil leak,” Chang said, noting the exact cause has not been determined.

The Okinawa fire is a setback to China Airlines, which in recent years had improved on a troubled safety record among international carriers.

A Taipei-Hong Kong China Airlines 747 crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff in 2002, claiming all 225 people on board, and some 450 people died in China Airlines accidents during the 1990s.

In Tokyo, a liaison office was set up at the prime minister’s office in connection with the accident, and the transport ministry’s Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission dispatched four inspectors to Naha.

China Airlines’ checkered record
China Airlines has suffered four fatal accidents in recent years:

April 1994 — A China Airlines Airbus jet crashes in Nagoya when it stalls during an aborted landing. Only seven of the 271 passengers and crew survive.

February 1998 — An Airbus carrying holidaymakers back from Bali, Indonesia, crashes and disintegrates at Taipei airport, killing 196 aboard and seven on the ground.

September 1999 — An MD-11 crashes on landing in Hong Kong. All but three of the 315 passengers and crew survive.

May 2002 — A Boeing 747-200 bound for Hong Kong with 225 passengers and crew on board crashes into the sea shortly after takeoff. There are no survivors.

China Airlines jet burns up at Naha; all safe