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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Air France Airbus Crashes in Toronto Airport

Aired August 2, 2005 - 17:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR: Corey, stand by for a minute. Corey Marx is one of the eyewitnesses to this crash.
I want to alert our viewers, once again we're awaiting a news conference. It's schedule to start right about now. It's 5:30 p.m. here on the East Coast of the United States, 5:30 p.m. in Toronto.

You're looking at live pictures from Pearson International Airport. The runway in the background. The smoke coming on the left side of your screens. That's the wreckage from an Air France flight from Paris -- from Paris to Toronto. That crashed shortly after 4 p.m. Eastern, about an hour-and-a-half or so ago in bad weather as it was landing at Pearson International Airport.

Martin Cej is the editor of "Toronto" -- "The Toronto Globe and Mail" newspaper, one of Canada's premiere newspapers. He's joining us on the phone.

Martin, what do you know?

MARTIN CEJ, EDITOR, "TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL": Well, what we have now is confirmation from a police officer in the area that the pilot has gone to the hospital is what he's told us. And as well, some other passengers have been taken off.

He wasn't able, however, to tell us how many casualties there are. But he did confirm to us that a pilot has gone to the hospital and other passengers were wandering around in the area.

You've been looking at the pictures. And obviously, the 401 Highway is right next to where the plane went down. And according to what this police officer said, that some of these passengers are wandering toward the highway, and the police are having to round them up.

BLITZER: Well, that's encouraging to hear that there are survivors. Any idea, Martin, how many survivors? How many actual people have been brought to hospitals?

CEJ: Unfortunately, we don't know that at this point in time. The sergeant we spoke to is a sergeant with the Peel Regional Police. As you know, the airport is just north of Toronto and the municipality is known as the Peel region.

That police officer can only confirm that -- for us that the pilot was on his way to hospital and so were some passengers. But he could not and did not want to speculate on how many casualties there were. So we are still trying to chase down some sources and some witnesses there. But at least we do know that the pilot was able to make it out and some of the -- some of the passengers.

BLITZER: We know that this aircraft, this Airbus 340 under normal circumstances is configured to hold about 252 passengers plus crew members. Do you know, Martin, how many people were aboard the plane?

CEJ: Now we are hearing that there is around -- there was around 290 passengers. We'll have to get confirmation from a couple of sources. We are hearing that from somebody, an Air France official Montreal.

But again, that official did not want to speculate on precisely the number, but he believes, according to the flight number and the way the plane was configured, that it was around 290. And as you know, that the plane usually can hold anywhere from 252 to 303 people. So it's unfortunately up at the higher end.

BLITZER: The higher end, 290 you said. Is that right?

CEJ: Yes, that's what we've been able to hear so far. But again, we're going to have to get that confirmed from a couple of different sources.

BLITZER: We've been speaking to some eyewitnesses and others on the scene, Martin. How bad, from your perspective, are you in downtown Toronto outside? You're not near the airport right now. I'm trying to get a sense of how bad the weather was at around 4 p.m. Eastern.

CEJ: It was a dark, very misty heavy rain coming down. And obviously, we've had a terrific heat wave over the past few weeks. And we've had very violent weather over the last few weeks because of that.

So from what we gather, of course, there was a red alert at the -- at the airport, but the plane did try to make a landing. It was due to land at 4:12. And it was trying to make that landing, and unfortunately overshot the runway.

And as one of your witnesses has said, continued past the runway and into a very large gully. We call it a creek, but it is in fact a very large treated, treed gully that sort of abuts the 401 Highway. And then, unfortunately, at that end, too, we're seeing a lot of rubber-neckers. And that's the main artery into the city. And that's becoming its own hazard, as well.

BLITZER: A quick question before I let you go, Martin. When you said the airport was on red alert, what are the various stages and what does the red alert at Pearson International Airport specifically mean for pilots and controllers as these planes are approaching landing?

CEJ: Well, I'm sorry. I can't answer that. I know that the airport was under red alert from earlier this morning because of the weather, but planes had been taking off and landing. And I don't know whether that specifically means that it's turning planes away. But we do know that the airport was under red alert. Whether that means simply a heightened level of care and caution taken by the tower and the pilots themselves, I'm not certain.

BLITZER: All right, Martin. I want Miles O'Brien to weigh in. Miles, I don't know if you have a question for Martin, who's been very helpful for us from the "Toronto Globe and Mail." But if you do, this is a good time to ask him.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, you know, I want to just remind our viewers that in the early stages we were talking a lot about wind sheer. And I'd like to back off of that for just a little moment.

Because, based on what the witnesses have been telling us, this looks much more like a scenario where the airplane made it to the runway and for whatever reason couldn't brake. It harkens back -- we always hearken back to previous accidents. But back in June of '99, an American Airlines flight, on MD80 trying to land at Little Rock, Arkansas, in a similar weather scenario ended up skidding off the runway, killing the pilot and I think eight others in that instance.

So in that situation, it was also made worse by the fact that there was a tail wind, which was part of the whole weather picture. But the picture here is not quite what we were talking about earlier, where a plane flying through microbursts, as we talked about that crash 20 years ago. So I would discount our viewers in that direction based what we've heard from the witnesses, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let me say goodbye to Martin Cej from the "Toronto Globe and Mail." Martin, thanks very much for helping us.

Let's bring back our eyewitness, Corey Marx, who's been very helpful to us in telling us what exactly happened. Corey Marx was on this highway. This is Highway 401 at the bottom of the screen. You see traffic going in one direction only right now, limited traffic. Not very far away from the smoke that's still billowing from the wreckage.

But Corey, it's obviously been encouraging. We heard now from Martin Cej, "The Toronto Globe and Mail," quoting a police officer in nearby Peel, the district -- suburb of Toronto, that there are survivors that have been brought to local hospitals, including the pilot.

You didn't see any individuals emerge from that wreckage, did you?

MARX: None whatsoever. Well, you've got to -- I don't know if you can see it, but I mean, it's heavy dense bush there. Lots of greenage and like a big gully like the gentleman was saying from "The Globe and Mail."

Like I said, if they went out, they probably went out towards the north, which is like towards the airport. The pilot getting out there, man, that's amazing. I mean, because the way that plane cracked and went into the gully and was sitting down into it, that's amazing. Absolutely amazing. BLITZER: Yes. The Canadian wire services are confirming that local police saying that the pilot, the pilot of this Air France Airbus 340 has been taken to a local hospital. Toronto radio reporters are reporting that, as well.

Miles, that would be pretty -- extremely helpful for the investigation if the pilot survives.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely, Wolf. I mean, clearly that is the person who knows as much as anything what was going on there when you have the flight crew. And much of what we talk about in the wake of accidents, of course is reconstructing what the flight crew was thinking, them not being around to offer any answers, whether it was the cockpit voice recorder or taking the flight data recorder information, indicating what they did to the instruments, how they were steering it and so forth.

I wanted to bring in, if we have him, if Captain John Wiley, retired US Airways captain and a man who has flown -- has many hours in the Airbus, and ask John about this different scenario.

When last we were talking, John, we were talking about microbursts. This seems to hearken back to the sort of scenario we saw in Little Rock, Arkansas, back in 1999 with an American MD-80 landing in bad weather and going long on the runway. What's your take on it?

JOHN WILEY, RETIRED US AIRWAYS CAPTAIN: Well, the MD-80 accident at Little Rock, with the exception of the overrun, is really a completely different situation, Miles. We have a lot of factors there as far as the air crew going on with that one with the chief pilot and a relatively young first officer.

But in this case, what we're looking at is an overrun here and made even more difficult by the fact that we've got difficult terrain, which no doubt created significant problems for the emergency vehicles to get to the airplane. Plus, with everyone talking about rain, we would have had damp terrain further inhibiting their ability to get there.

We see that now that the smoke is diminishing. So apparently their efforts to quench the fire are being more successful now. We watched for a long period of time there with the smoke being black and billowing. So they appear to be having much more success now.

You mentioned earlier too about press on or "get-home-itis." As I mentioned to a couple of passengers when I was flying, I'm the first in the air. If you look at where I'm sitting in cockpit, I'm the first in the air and I'm the last out of the air. So I have a heavily invested interest in a safe flight and its completion. I don't get any extras for taking the airplane off the end of the runway.

So again, we hearken back to this being a professional crew trying to make the best decision they can with the system. The airplane going off the end of the runway, our eyewitness told us that he heard the aircraft reverse. So we're going to have to assume a number of different problems, possible hydroplaning. I don't think that we're going to find a brake failure. The aircraft that you mentioned in Warsaw, that issue was addressed by reconfiguring some of the actuators.

And what we find out in each accident is the variables are so different and they are arranged in such a manner that the likelihood we see a similar accident occur is extremely remote.

The second thing is, the emerging philosophy now that because the systems are so complex, not only are we talking about the airplane and the air crews and the people, the airport, the weather, the environment, everything, there is an inherent chaos. And what we're looking at is these crews -- the crews create the safety in the system, b ecause there's so many different variables. There's so many different problems that, for all the training that you've got, when a situation occurs like this, there may be no solution available at that instant.

BLITZER: John, it's Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Miles, I want our viewers to know this, as well. Our affiliate in Toronto, CTV, and these are pictures that we're showing the world courtesy of CTV, our affiliate is now reporting that one eyewitness saying the plane was hit by lightning.

That's one eyewitness saying the plane was listening -- was hit by lightning. Let's listen precisely, precisely what this passenger said.

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

ROEL BRAMAR, PASSENGER ON FLIGHT 358: It seemed that the captain wasn't able to apply sufficient braking power or whatever you call it. And then all of a sudden, everything went up in the air. Well, passengers didn't go up in the air because they were in their seat. They were in their seat belts. But there was a real roller coaster going on, which I guess in the end turned out to be that he overshot the driveway.

Overshot, I'm not saying that he did it, but anyway, we came to the end of the driveway and went into the ravine. Plane came to an abrupt stop, and that's putting it mildly. And there was smoke and there was a bit of an announcement at first to just stay in your seats.

I was in the very, very back of the plane and could see that there was fire outside. And I was the second person off the plane down the chute.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have a sense of whether many of the others who were with you were able to get off and safely?

BRAMAR: You know, I thought so. But I haven't really had any concrete reports one way or the other. There's certainly -- because really, all I did was run like crazy. There was quite a bit of fire on the ground. And we seemed to be a valley, which I guess turned out to be this ravine between the landing way and the 401. So running like crazy at a time like that, you don't exactly look around and see what's happening.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Were you on the plane alone or were you traveling with family?

BRAMAR: No, I was just with a friend. I just spent a week in France for a wedding.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did people react as they got off the plane? You say they were just running?

BRAMAR: As I said, I was the second one off the plane. The people around me, everybody was just running like crazy. Just in case there was an explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many people...

BRAMAR: Which I gathered in the end there wasn't. So I would tend to think that things ended up OK, but I really can't tell for sure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Certainly those are encouraging words, Mr. Bramar. I wonder if you can give us a sense of how full this plane was.

BRAMAR: It was full. Totally full.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've been hearing that a plane such as this one can carry about 350 passengers.

BRAMAR: That's probably right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does that seem about right to you?

BRAMAR: I would think so.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's also been a lot of speculation, clearly, about what happened here. Now as you may have seen on approach there was severe weather in the area.

BRAMAR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Lightning strikes.

BRAMAR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you see any lightning?

BRAMAR: Yes, yes, I saw lightning. And maybe there was already -- maybe the plane had already been hit by lightning. The reason I'm mentioning that is because just as we landed, the lights turned off. And that's unusual. So I'm certainly -- I'm sure that the bad weather was responsible.

I never got the idea that -- I sort of got the idea almost that the captain wanted to -- wanted to lower the plane as quickly as possible and get in there fast, because there was such a rough storm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you say that you landed and the lights went off, how did you react? How did people around you react?

BRAMAR: Well, it really -- you know, we had come to a complete stop. So it's not like you think anything else is about to happen. I mean, even although we had a hell of a roller coaster going down the ravine. But as soon as there was smoke and fire outside, and I can't tell how the other people reacted because I was at the very, very end of the plane, the absolute last seat of the plane. And so you know, all I could think of was get off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you get out of the plane?

BRAMAR: Down the chute.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to break away. This was an interview that was conducted on the CBC, not CTV. A short while ago. On CTV right now, another passenger is being interviewed. Let's go live to CTV in Canada to hear this eyewitness account from a passenger who has survived this crash.

OLIVIER DUBOS, PASSENGER ON AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 358: Because there were lots of flames. We were running really fast out of there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want to review for people who may have just joined us, Olivier Dubois -- Dubos, rather, sorry, was a passenger on Air France Flight 358 from Paris to Toronto. He is just relating to us what it was like for him in those terrifying moments when the plane crashed.

Did, Olivier, in those moments and I guess all of us who travel on airplanes wonder about this, at the time of an accident, were you given safety instructions? Were there people who were in charge of the evacuation or was it every man for himself?

DUBOS: When we -- there was no like (INAUDIBLE) Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CTV. Can I help you?

DUBOS: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sorry, we've got a crossed line there, Olivier.

DUBOS: OK. So what I'm saying is you don't know at all what was happening. And really, we think, it's (INAUDIBLE) as we were that we had to make an emergency landing, and everybody was really panicked.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Prior to the landing, Olivier, did the crew or the pilot give you any indication that the landing may be difficult?

DUBOS: No. I mean, we had absolutely no insight or hint that the landing would be difficult. We just knew that it would be a bit hard because of the weather. But...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sorry. You were saying then that the power went out in the airplane just before you landed. Is that right?

DUBOS: Yes, just before we landed. The plane was going extremely fast. And the power shut down completely. But we thought that that was because of the rain or the very heavy winds or whatever. So -- but yes, that's true. One minute before we crashed completely, there was -- there was no more light in the plane. And then -- then we could feel we were off road. And then it was really, really scary. Very, very scary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Olivier, we do not know yet how many passengers escaped. But we are awfully glad that you are safe and sound, as are many, many others. And I want to thank you for taking time to talk to us, and welcome to Canada, Olivier.

DUBOS: Yes. Well, we just -- I mean, we just hope really now that everybody managed to get out of this plane, and we have no news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Well, thank God you're safe. And please be well.

BLITZER: All right. Well, that was our affiliate CTV in Canada and Toronto reporting. With an eyewitness, not only an eyewitness, but a passenger, Olivier Dubos, who survived this crash at Pearson International Airport.

Earlier the CBC was doing a live interview with another passenger who was sitting in the absolute last row of this Airbus 340, Roel Bramar, who survived, as well. And both ran, in their words, like crazy to get out of that plane. They don't know the nature of the other casualties or survivors.

We were told earlier, quoting a local police authority that the pilot of this Air France Flight 358 from Paris to Toronto, did survive and was taken to a local hospital.

Let's go to Gord Martineau of City TV in Toronto, another television network, who's been monitoring the survivor situation. Gordon, tell us what you know about survivors.

GORD MARTINEAU, CITY TV: What we've been told is that everyone made it out of the aircraft alive. There have been some more serious injuries like broken legs, things of that nature. And one of the hospitals, the hospital for sick children here, was put on alert earlier today and that two busloads of passengers have been taken downtown to the hospital to either have their injuries looked at or whatever injuries they have to be assessed.

BLITZER: Well, that's absolutely excellent news if everyone, in fact, made it out alive. Do you know, Gord, how many people were inside that aircraft?

MARTINEAU: I can only guess at it, because really, as you know, the aircraft is capable of carrying up to 305 passengers and crew. But one of the women who works here at this television station had a friend on board that aircraft who got off the plane, down the chute, ran onto the highway, which you're seeing in your shot, the 401, got on the cell phone and called her husband and said she was OK, but she saw some people with what she said were pretty serious injuries. And they had been taken to -- basically because there was thunderstorm activity at the time, they had been taken under a bridge overpass to be protected.

There had been severe thunderstorm warnings all day, especially out in the airport area from 11:30 this morning. And actually, the airport had grounded all in and outbound traffic for a couple of hours to let the system pass, but this Air France jet decided, I suppose, to come in and go for a landing. Perhaps fuel was a factor. Lost power for some reason.

The woman who called said that she felt they were way too high and then suddenly there was a huge drop in altitude, and the plane hit the runway very hard. She says she thinks the aircraft blew its tires. Therefore, the pilot probably had no control over the aircraft and went into the gully at the end of Runway 24 left.

BLITZER: So Gord, just to recap, the source for the information that you're giving our viewers, that all the passengers and crew members did survive this crash, give us that source again.

MARTINEAU: That source was from people working at the airport and people who were on the plane. Said that to the best of their knowledge, everybody got off the aircraft, because, as you know from the shot, that you had earlier, the fire broke out in the tail section of the aircraft between the wing and the tail but more towards the rear of the aircraft. And so the chutes were opened in the forward area, and all of the passengers managed to get down those chutes at that time before the fire got too bad, because as you know it, got really bad.

BLITZER: Gord, stand by. Miles O'Brien is joining us from New York, as well -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, Wolf, this whole notion of a hard landing and the possibility that tires blew as a result of that, that offers a lot of explanation to us.

First of all, it is remarkable, as I was saying only a few moments ago, Wolf, when we thought this was something on approach, there were microbursts, it was not a good situation. This is just the opposite of what we thought. But that whole notion of a hard landing in the midst of bad weather sort of does play back into what we were talking about, the adverse conditions on approach there. Certainly, if you've lost your tires, you don't have the braking ability, and that would cause an airplane to run off the end of the runway.

MARTINEAU: The first question was, why didn't this pilot enact any braking procedures and probably had no power and no tires on the vehicle, as well.

BLITZER: And Gord, you're getting -- the information you're getting and we spoke -- we didn't speak but our affiliate CTV spoke with one passenger, and CBC spoke with another passenger, one of whom said that he believed lightning had actually struck this plane. MARTINEAU: That's entirely conceivable in view of the severe thunderstorm warning, which had been in effect for most of the morning and afternoon, especially in the western section of the city, which is where Pearson airport is located. That's entirely plausible.

BLITZER: Are you getting any information, Gord, why air traffic controllers allowed this plane to make this kind of landing in what you and so many others have now described to our viewers as very bad weather, severe weather in Toronto?

MARTINEAU: Yes, severe thunderstorm activity. And you know, so air traffic controllers probably, you know, went for the scenario that they may have been low on fuel and this guy had no other opportunity. I mean, New York is an hour and 30 minutes from Toronto. Montreal is about an hour and 10. So I don't know whether he had enough fuel to make it even to Buffalo, which is just across the lake from us.

BLITZER: So there could have been. Is anybody telling you that they didn't have enough fuel or is that just your speculation?

MARTINEAU: No one is saying that. I can only guess as to why they allowed this guy to come in and land under those conditions.

BLITZER: Other planes, though, we're told, coming into this landing, other planes had landed.

MARTINEAU: Yes, but I know that from what our source out at the airport said, that they had put a hold on the -- on all air traffic, inbound and outbound, during the severe thunderstorm warning. So, you know, we're getting conflicting information on that.

BLITZER: Do you know, Gord, if this plane cracked in half on landing?

MARTINEAU: No. Because the shot that we had from the airport was it was all in one piece, but the fire broke out just forward of the tail section. And then the smoke and flames and everything else began to erupt, and it went from there. And it slid into the ditch. It was kind of at a down angle where the nose was kind of down a little bit. As you can see from the shot, the gully is right there at the end of 24 left.

BLITZER: Miles O'Brien, this is very encouraging news, if in fact all the passengers and crew members have survived this crash. I would dare say it's almost miraculous.

O'BRIEN: You could put it in that category, Wolf. There's no question about it.

Let's walk through another scenario. We've been working on scenarios here. And this is what crash investigators do. They kind of -- as the situation presents itself, they come up with a list of possibilities.

Let's assume for a moment it was struck by lightning. What would that do? Well, that could cause an electrical failure of some kind, partial or complete electrical failure. That, in and of itself, could have led to that hard landing we just heard about.

But even if the hard landing was sort of a separate issue, a weather-related issue, the hard landing gets you on the ground and you have, certainly, a problem with the tires, if the tires have blown out. That gives you a problem just keeping the airplane on the runway. Braking becomes an issue.

And then going back to that issue of the electrical system. If that electrical system is not operating, are you able to get reverse thrust to both engines as you should? Did one engine give a reverse thrust, causing it to be unstable, or any number of scenarios here>

But rooted in all of this, however, really in every case we've talked about here, is that this was a bad weather day in Toronto. And there were real-time decisions made by flight crews each and every time here as to whether it was safe and prudent at that moment. These are professional crews that are trained for bad weather, and sometimes these decisions have to be made awfully quickly, Wolf.

BLITZER: And an Airbus 340, that's a relatively new plane with state-of-the-art emergency equipment, I assume, Miles?

O'BRIEN: Yes, it is. It's a state-of-the-art airplane. It has four engines. It's a fly-by-wire system, though -- we've talked about that a lot -- instead of, you know, when you push on the controls or turn the controls. It's not like there's a bunch of pulleys and hydraulic systems. There's not a direct mechanical linkage to the flaps, the control surfaces which make it go in any given direction.

It actually sends electronic impulses through computers, and those actually command electric motors. So imagine a lightning strike in a situation like that and the possibility of electrical failure in a fly-by-wire system. All of things will be situations that the crash investigators will be looking at, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, I want to thank Gord Martineau of City TV in Toronto for helping us with that information. The information, once again, he's getting from his sources in Toronto at the airport, local law enforcement, among others, that all the passengers and crew members managed to get out, to escape. Some are in worse shape than others. Many have been brought to local hospitals. Some were seen walking around, dazed, from this crash.

But we did hear directly, courtesy of CTV and CBC, two eyewitness passengers, two of the passengers who survived, who did, in fact, manage to get out and told their incredible stories.

I want to show some video of what happened earlier. Let's put that up on the screen right now, Miles, as we see this. We can only assume, if in fact everyone did manage to escape, Miles, that by the time these flames erupted around this cabin and the smoke billowing from there, the chutes were open, the doors were open and people managed to escape. I can only assume that.

O'BRIEN: Yes, and Wolf, I'm looking at it here. First of all, we do know that those inflatable slides, those chutes were deployed in the forward section. So clearly, the flight crew was aware of what was going on and took the action that would be required to do that.

Secondly, I'm trying to see if I can make out if the spoilers on the wings, which are part of the braking system -- they're on the upward surface of the wing. I'm trying to see if they've been deployed. But I can't tell from that picture. That would tell us a lot about how the braking system might have been working.

But clearly, you know, there was time. There was time in this case, unlike a situation with wind bursts, coming, flying through at 800 feet or so low and slow, being slammed into the ground.

In this case, the passengers had time. And the flight crew also, importantly, had time to respond and provide, you know, an emergency means of egress from the airplane before that fire took hold.

So this was a -- you know, you can't call it a lucky day, having lived through that, but if you're going to have to live through that, that was a lucky set of sequences for the passengers on that plane.

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