Japan Airlines crash: Calm and steady evacuation saved lives on Tokyo plane fire

Passengers and crew were initially unaware the aircraft was on fire

Officials inspect the wreckage of the Japan Airlines passenger plane at Haneda Airport in Japan. AP
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A calm and steady evacuation and crews following training saved the lives of all 379 passengers on-board a Japan Airlines plane after it was engulfed in flames on the runway of Tokyo's Haneda Airport on Tuesday.

The airliner collided with a coastguard plane after landing. All but one of the six people on the smaller aircraft were killed.

The pilots in the cockpit did not know about the fire until being informed by cabin crew, Japan's national broadcaster NHK said.

Flames erupted from the airliner before it came to a halt, with the fire beginning to spread from underneath the aircraft, footage shot by passengers showed.

The chief flight attendant, one of nine on board, reported to the cockpit that the plane was burning and that the cabin crew needed permission to open the emergency exits, NHK said.

Moment Japan Airlines plane bursts into flames on landing

Moment Japan Airlines plane bursts into flames on landing

The cabin then filled up with smoke as the temperature on board increased. Footage on board showed babies crying and people begging for the doors to be opened.

“The smell of smoke was in the air, and the doors were not opening. So I think everyone panicked,” a woman said.

“Honestly, I thought we wouldn't survive. So I texted my family and friends to say that my plane is burning, right now,” another woman told broadcaster NHK.

There were eight emergency exits but the evacuation began from two slides at the front of the plane.

Only one other exit, at the rear left, was safe from the flames, but the intercom system was no longer functioning, preventing the cockpit from giving the go-ahead, the airline said.

The crew in the back deemed the passengers needed to disembark from the back door and, following their training, they opened it.

It took 18 minutes to evacuate the entire plane, with the pilot the last person to set foot on the tarmac at 6:05pm.

Evacuation protocols followed 'to the tee'

Officials at Japan's second-biggest airline said on Wednesday that the crew followed emergency procedures in textbook fashion, starting with the first rule: panic control.

They used megaphones and their voices to give instructions to the passengers. The crew used short, direct commands, as they are trained to do, such as “leave your luggage” and “not this door”, officials said.

Aviation safety agencies have warned for years that pausing to collect carry-on baggage risks lives during an evacuation.

“I'm sure all of you have the experience of being asked on flights not to take your carry-on items in the case of an emergency evacuation,” Noriyuki Aoki, senior vice president of general affairs, said.

“This was followed to the tee, including with the co-operation of the passengers, and we believe that led to the swift evacuation.”

Terence Fan, an airline industry expert from Singapore Management University told AFP that the “passengers seemed to have followed instructions in a textbook manner”.

“This is exactly what evacuation policies are designed for – the airframe itself is not meant to survive the blaze, ultimately.”

Some passengers credited the swift evacuation drill with saving their lives.

“I heard an explosion about 10 minutes after everyone and I got off the plane,” said Tsubasa Sawada, 28. “I can only say it was a miracle, we could have died if we were late.”

Investigators from Japan, France, Britain and Canada were probing the crash on Thursday.

The flight recorder and voice recorder from the coastguard plane had been found, but those of the passenger jet were still being sought.

The Transport Ministry on Wednesday released transcripts of the flight controllers' communications, which showed they approved the flight's landing.

But the coastguard plane was reportedly instructed to go to a spot near the runway.

At least one pet dog and cat had to be left on the plane and died, the airline said.

All cabin attendants get trained once a year on evacuation procedures, simulating various scenarios such as what to do when they cannot communicate with the cockpit, officials said.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 7:33 AM