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Report details 2016 evacuation of American Airlines jet

Passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Oct. 28, 2016.
Passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Oct. 28, 2016. AP

Panicked passengers on an American Airlines aircraft in Chicago last October demanded to evacuate as a massive fire engulfed the right wing, and then were blasted by exhaust from an engine that pilots hadn’t shut down.

The National Transportation Safety Board released more than 500 pages of investigative reports Thursday detailing how a metallurgical flaw led to a violent right engine failure, a fire that raged outside the plane and the ensuing evacuation.

Flight attendants described a chaotic scene as they first tried to prevent passengers from fleeing because the plane’s left engine was still running, buffeting two of the three escape slides. They relented after smoke began filling the cabin. Some of the passengers were blown to the tarmac by the blast of air from the working engine while they attempted to evacuate, according to the reports.

One flier told investigators that he “stood up to get away from the airplane and was blown over by the thrust coming out of the back of the engine,” NTSB wrote in one report. “He got back up again and ran to a grass strip next to the runway. He could feel pain in his back.”

The Boeing 767-300 was taking off on Oct. 28 when its right engine exploded in what’s known as an uncontained failure. Shrapnel from the disintegrating engine ripped through the hardened casing, and the engine burst into flames.

Massive fireball

Leaking fuel triggered a massive fireball on the right of the plane as passengers evacuated out the other side. Out of 170 people aboard, one person suffered a serious injury and 19 had minor injuries, according to NTSB.

The NTSB documents include technical reports on the crew’s performance, the failure in the engine and the evacuation. They stop short of reaching any conclusions about the causes of the incident, which will be issued later.

Flight attendants said they weren’t able to contact the cockpit to coordinate the evacuation with the pilots. Passengers had begun racing to the left side of the plane even before it stopped on the runway. Some people tried to bring their bags with them despite repeated calls to leave them behind.

40 seconds

All three of the exit doors were opened within about 40 seconds of the plane stopping, though the engine’s exhaust was buffeting the two inflatable exit slides at the middle and rear of the aircraft.

A flight attendant at the rear of the plane said he and another attendant held off opening the emergency exit while waiting to hear from the pilots.

“As they were waiting, the cabin began to fill with smoke, so they decided to open the door and evacuate,” NTSB said in a report. “Once the door was open he could see passengers rolling across the runway behind the engine and the slide blowing to the rear.”

While attendants are given leeway to react to potentially catastrophic emergencies, American instructs them to assess whether engines are still running before ordering an evacuation, according to the NTSB.

Checklist requirement

It took at least a minute from the time the plane stopped until the copilot reported shutting off fuel to the engines, according to a transcript of the cockpit’s voice recorder. Pilots told investigators that it took a long time to depressurize the cabin, which was required in the evacuation checklist before shutting off the engine and ordering an evacuation.

The captain described the checklist as “cumbersome.”

“We are proud of our pilots, flight attendants and other team members who responded quickly on Oct. 28, 2016, to take care of our customers and colleagues under very challenging circumstances,” American spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

A rotating disk within the General Electric CF6-80 engine had an “internal inclusion,” meaning foreign debris became embedded within the nickel- and chromium-based alloy designed to withstand the heat and high stresses of a jet engine, according to the NTSB.

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