Denver, Colorado – Passengers on the Continental Airlines jet that crashed on takeoff Saturday in Denver were told the plane had an engine problem but that it had been fixed, a passenger said.
Gabriel Trejos was about to board Continental Flight 1404, bound for Houston, with his wife and 1-year-old when gate officials announced that the plane was experiencing “engine problems,” Trejos told CNN affiliate KUSA.
But, “shortly after that, they said everything is fine. There’s going to be an on-time flight,” he said.
The Boeing 737 taxied down the runway at Denver International Airport and accelerated.
It was dark, 6:18 p.m., and the Trejos’ baby, leaning against the window, giggled at the lights on the tarmac.
“All of a sudden, it was too much light,” said Maria Trejos, who is four months pregnant.
“We felt the plane veer to the left. My husband was holding my son and we felt some bumpiness and I thought it was just turbulence,” she told CNN. “I looked to the side and all of a sudden there was this giant fireball behind my husband’s head. I have this image of him just grabbing my son’s head and just pulling him toward himself and all of a sudden we felt this heat.”
She felt a bump, she said. “And it felt like we were airborne for a couple of seconds.” Watch Maria and Gabriel Trejos describe the crash »
The plane skidded off the runway, its wheels disintegrating. It slammed into a ravine, its fuel tanks leaking, and caught fire. Luggage fell out of overhead bins that had begun to melt.
Passengers panicked and shoved and stepped over each other. One yelled, “The plane is going to explode!” said Gabriel Trejos, who was clutching his child and feared that the buckling seats would “squash” them both.
The couple fought their way into a line of people scrambling to get out of the back of the plane. Some were trying to get their luggage first.
“I just wanted to get out of there,” Gabriel Trejos said.
He noticed that the escape chute in the middle of the plane had fewer people huddled near it. The Trejos dashed for that, and escaped.
All 115 people on board survived the crash. Forty people were injured, two critically, authorities said. Bone fractures and bruises were the most common complaint, and there appeared to be no burn victims, fire officials said.
Of the dozens taken to hospitals, only five people remained hospitalized late Sunday, said Robert Sumwalt, a National Transportation Safety Board member leading the investigation team.
In the airport after the ordeal, passengers used terms like “rag doll” to describe how they felt during the nightmare.
“It was incredibly violent,” Jeb Tilly told CNN affiliate KPRC. “It was a big left-hand turn and we sort of started bouncing a lot as if we were in a roller coaster, you know, you’re kind of getting tossed around in your seat.
“And then there was a lot of silence all of a sudden. We took a big drop and when we hit the ground, that’s when the thing really got kind of screwy,” Tilly continued. “I think that’s when the plane cracked in half at that point and all the overhead baggage compartments broke open and fell down.”
On Monday investigators were to begin interviewing crew members, pilots and passengers to help determine what caused the accident, an official said Sunday. From the air, a crack is visible wrapping around the middle part of the plane.
Sumwalt said the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered and appeared to be in good condition, though they were covered in soot from the fire. Both recorders were sent to Washington to be reviewed as early as Sunday night.
“We are here for one reason and one reason only, to find out what happened so we can keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said, adding that cold days may slow the investigation.
Preliminary findings may come within a week, he said, but a full investigation could take a year.
At a news conference late Saturday, Patrick Hynes, chief of the airport division of the Denver Fire Department, said crews responding to the scene “had a difficult time narrowing down exactly where the airplane ended up,” but found it north of a firehouse.
When they arrived, firefighters found the plane on fire in a ravine about 200 yards from the runway, with its wheels sheared off and fuel tanks leaking, Hynes said.
“They [firefighters] described a surreal scene when they pulled up, heavy fire on the right side of the aircraft, all chutes deployed from both sides of the aircraft, people evacuating and walking up the hillside towards them,” he said.
Hynes said the entire right side of the jet was in flames and “a heck of a firefight” followed.
“There was significant extension of fire into the cabin portion,” he said. “There’s significant fire damage inside with the luggage compartment described as melting and dropping down into the seats.”
Hynes said fuel from the aircraft leaked for several hours after the accident.