DURANGO, MEXICO - It began with a strong burst of wind and pounding hail that pummeled the Aeromexico jetliner moments after takeoff in northern Mexico then sent it smashing belly-down onto a field near the runway.
Frightened passengers scrambled to flee as flames and blinding black smoke erupted around them. Miraculously, all 103 on board survived the crash Tuesday.
On Wednesday, passengers described the terrifying sequence of events.
“It’s not every day you kind of fall from the sky and live to tell about it,” said Alberto Herrera, a 35-year-old webpage engineer from Chicago.
Jose Luis Corral, a 52-year-old business owner from Portland, Oregon, agreed.
“It’s a good thing we’re all alive,” said Corral, who still wore a neck brace from injuries he suffered in the crash.
“It’s so fast, terrifying to see all the people screaming,” added Corral, who was one of four people who helped the plane’s badly injured pilot escape the blaze. The pilot suffered a serious neck injury and remains hospitalized. Forty-eight others were also injured, and 22 remained hospitalized Wednesday.
Herrera said the skies were sunny as passengers boarded the flight from Durango to Mexico City Tuesday afternoon and the violent storm seemed to come from nowhere.
“When we were sitting on the plane there was a little drizzle, but nothing to worry about. It was just a little light rain, super light, like barely hitting the windows,” Herrera said.
But another passenger Ramin Parsa, 32, of Los Angeles, said the weather was ominous even before takeoff.
“The airplane actually was shaking before we even moved so I knew it was dangerous weather,” he said. “I thought that we were going to have a delay until the weather clears up, but the pilot began to move so I thought that he knows what he is doing.
“I think it was a mistake by the pilot. He should not have taken off,” Parsa said.
Durango state Gov. Jose Aispuro said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the crash. Mechanical failure and human error could be factors, but certainly the weather wasn’t favorable.
Herrera said the takeoff went bad, seemingly in an instant.
“You start gaining speed and as soon as you start taking off all of the sudden the plane starts struggling and it’s getting hit with hail. The higher up we went into the storm, the heavier the hail got and more wind got to us,” Herrera said.
“Then all of a sudden the plane starts rocking and it starts seriously, seriously moving around and then hitting the ground,” he said. “We skidded and hit a second time and you saw the flames. …You’re like ‘This might be bad.'”
Herrera braced for impact and yelled for others to do the same. The woman seated next to him was able to hold onto her toddler, though the little girl suffered some scratches and may have hit her head on a seat.
Officials said the impact ripped both engines off the Embraer 190 jetliner, and fire immediately broke out in the wings.
“My window turned red because of the flames,” Parsa said. He said he tried to kick out a window but couldn’t. He searched for an exit and at first couldn’t find one because of all the smoke. Then suddenly he felt fresh air on his face. He was in front of the exit.
“Imagine you put 100 people in a room, in a dark room, pitch dark, filled with smoke and there’s a small door, everybody’s trying to find it. That’s what the situation was,” Parsa said.
At the back exit, Herrera said the emergency slide had deployed but the fuselage was at an odd angle, so it was unusable and people had to jump to the ground.
The passengers walked back across the muddy field to the end of runway and waited there for emergency vehicles.
Herrera said he was thankful to be alive.
“Me, I just came out of it with scratches. Other people are seriously injured,” he said.
He credits both the pilot and the fact that the plane had not gained much altitude when the storm broke out for the good outcome.
“The pilot had to execute a maneuver correctly and then we hit the storm at its peak while we were going up, and not while we were up in the air,” he said.
An Illinois priest was on the plane. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago said the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez suffered some injuries but was alert and resting.
Mexico’s Transport Department said the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was sending two investigators to assist in the investigation, and the plane’s manufacturer will also participate.
The department did not immediately answer questions about whether the airport was equipped with a Low Level Wind Shear Alert System that can detect weather conditions like severe down drafts or microbursts.