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A Boeing 737-800 passenger plane of Taiwan’s China Airlines exploded and burst into flames after it parked at Okinawa’s Naha airport Monday morning. Miraculously all 157 passengers and eight crew members escaped unhurt moments before the airline burst into a fireball.

If the evacuation had been delayed one or two minutes, or if the explosions had occurred one or two minutes earlier, the incident could have been disastrous, killing a large number of people. One bright spot in the incident is that a regulation concerning passenger and crew evacuation worked as desired and saved their lives. The regulation stipulates a sufficient number of emergency doors and their location at appropriate locations so that everyone in a passenger plane can evacuate within 1 1/2 minutes in the event of an emergency.

A fuel leak apparently caused the fire and explosions. Boeing Aircraft Co., the maker of the plane, has announced that the fire was not the result of manufacturing error. Three Japanese airlines that are flying 23 Boeing 737-800s also have reported that their inspections of the planes’ fuel supply systems have disclosed no abnormalities.

It is imperative that air accidents investigators look closely into not only the details of the Naha fire but also what actions the air crew took — to help prevent similar incidents in the future and to help ensure a wider safety margin if such an incident does recur.

The Boeing 737-800 that caught fire belongs to the latest model of the best-selling Boeing 737 passenger planes. It is said that more than 5,000 Boeing 737s have been sold so far. The Boeing 737-800, which can fly up to 189 passengers, is now popular with airlines as they switch to smaller passenger planes with better fuel efficiency than jumbo jets. Given the popularity of the Boeing 737-800, its safety should be ensured.

China Airlines’ Flight CI120 from Taipei arrived at Naha airport at 10:27 a.m. Monday and came to a halt at parking slot No. 41 at 10:32 a.m. Two ground mechanics noticed a fuel leak from the right wing and the right engine catching fire. They notified the pilot and the latter stopped the engine and pulled a lever to inject fire-extinguishing agent into the engine. The two ground mechanics also tried to quell the fire with a fire extinguisher. But the fuel leak continued and the flames and smoke grew fiercer.

Then the passengers and the crew evacuated through four of the eight doors — the front right and left and the rear right and left — by using inflated emergency slides. Around 10:35 a.m. — when the last group of passengers were just a few dozen meters away from the plane — fuel that had spilled onto the ground under the fuselage caught fire. The fire instantly spread to the left engine, which then exploded. A few more explosions followed — apparently in the left engine and in the fuel tank inside the fuselage — collapsing the fuselage.

The pilot says the plane’s instruments showed no abnormal readings. He was not aware of the fuel leak until alerted by the ground mechanics. The ground mechanics later told police they saw fuel leaking from the right pylon while the plane was moving toward the parking area. The fire and explosions in the China Airlines plane are considered rare in that the engine exploded after engine output had dropped to halt the plane.

The plane underwent a once-a-year check in early July and a once-every-500-flight-hours check in early August, and both engines underwent an endoscope inspection in July. China Airlines says no abnormalities were found. The transport ministry’s Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission theorizes that a fuel pipe inside the right pylon to which the right engine is attached broke, causing a large amount of fuel to leak and catch fire from the residual engine heat.

It is hoped that Japanese investigators and officials from the United States National Transport Safety Board, Boeing, and General Electric Co. — which was involved in manufacturing the engine — will fully cooperate so that they can accurately determine what happened to the fuel supply piping system.

Monday’s accident was a setback for China Airlines, which was recovering from a series of disasters over the past decade, including an Airbus 300-600 crash at Nagoya airport in April 1994 (264 people killed) and the breaking apart in midflight of a Boeing 747-200 on its way from Taipei to Hong Kong in May 2002 (225 people killed).

Even under fierce competition, airlines should not cut back on money and personnel to ensure safety. They must not let the slightest fault go by unnoticed, as a small fault could still lead to a major accident. “Safety first” should be their highest principle.

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