Toronto – The evacuation of more than 300 people aboard an ill-fated Air France flight took less than two minutes, with a co-pilot the last to leave the flaming wreckage – a “textbook case” of how to deal with an airliner emergency, officials said Wednesday as the investigation into the dramatic crash of Flight 358 got underway in earnest.
“The evacuation was a minute and a half to two minutes maximum . . . the crew did a great job, they’re trained to get the people off,” said airport fire Chief Mike Figliola.
“This is what they’re trained to do and they did it perfect, it was a textbook case of getting the plane evacuated.”
Three-quarters of the passengers and crew aboard the plane left the wreckage in the 52 seconds it took for emergency crews to arrive.
By the time Figliola arrived, the tail of the plane had just started to burn, he said.
“I just saw lots of fire. It was a big fuel load, luggage, combustibles . . . I was probably 50 yards away from the aircraft. My face was burning, it was very intense.”
The Airbus A-340, never before involved in a crash in 13 years of commercial service, descended from a blackened, lightning-streaked sky Tuesday before skidding down a rain-slicked runway at Pearson International Airport and toppling into a wooded ravine, its engines bursting into flames.
Even more spectacular than the fiery end of Flight 358, which came at the height of rush hour Tuesday and within full view of Canada’s busiest highway, was the fact that the crash claimed no lives, leaving just 43 of the 297 passengers and 12 crew members with little more than minor injuries.
Don Enns, a senior investigator with the federal Transportation Safety Board, said the probe into the cause of the crash would begin in earnest Wednesday.
Officials were scheduled to begin investigating the so-called “black boxes” – the cockpit voice recorder and data recorder – which are expected to reveal details of the moments before the plane skidded off the runway, Enns said.
Several key pieces of evidence would have been recorded, each of which would be transferred electronically to a lab in Ottawa, he added.
“If there’s no damage, it’s just like an electronic transfer.”
Canada will take the lead on the investigation, Enns said. Air France officials were on their way to Toronto and expected to arrive in Canada later Wednesday afternoon.
Police said they did not consider the probe of the crash a criminal investigation.
“We’re treating this event as an accident at the moment,” said Peel Region police Sgt. Craig Platt. “There’s certainly nothing at this time to indicate anything but that.”
Aviation experts have said extreme weather conditions at the time of the landing – high, unpredictable winds, driving rains and lightning – likely played a key role in the crash.
Brian Lackey, vice-president of operations for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which manages the airport, said staff were struck by the severity of the storm as they watched it unfold from the windows.
“As we were looking out the window we were commenting that storm was extremely severe and we hadn’t seen one like that,” he said.
Asked to comment on a report that the pilot had circled the airport before the failed landing, Lackey said that was still under examination.
“We haven’t reviewed the tapes from the tower yet,” he said.”Normally if there are thunderstorms in the area, a pilot may decide to circle until it’s safe to land.”
The plane was broken into three pieces and continued to smoulder as of Wednesday morning.
Firefighters continued to extinguish hot spots, Figliola said.
Air France officials, including chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta, a medical team and a psychologist, were scheduled to arrive in Toronto on Wednesday after the crash to investigate and help ensure the continuing health of affected passengers.