American Airlines Flight 383 was rolling down the runway at O’Hare International Airport Friday afternoon, bound for Miami, when the plane skidded to a halt just as it was lifting off.
The pilot got on the radio. “American 383 heavy,” he said, referring to the Boeing 767’s weight class. “Stopping on the runway.”
“Roger, roger. Fire,” a traffic controller calmly replied, according to a recording of tower radio traffic.
The pilot asked if the tower controller saw fire.
“Yeah, fire off the right wing.”
Then seconds later, the pilot said, “American 383, we’re evacuating.”
The plane’s 161 passengers and nine crew members scrambled down emergency chutes on the left side of the plane while flames flared and thick black smoke billowed from the wing on the right side, according to the airline and video from the scene.
Twenty people were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, mostly bruises and ankle problems, according to Fire Chief Juan Hernandez, the EMS chief at the airport.
The aircraft experienced an “uncontained engine failure,” in which engine parts break off and are spewed outside the engine, a federal official said. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the incident and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The danger of such a rare and serious failure is that engine pieces effectively become shrapnel and can cause extensive damage to the aircraft.
“The smoke started coming in and the flames just started going along the windows on the right side,” said one of the passengers, Alan Lemery, 62, from the River North neighborhood. “Everybody started panicking at that point.”
People rushed toward the exits. “Then for some reason, everything happened very slowly and orderly,” said his wife, Marta Lemery.
Video of the scene shows passengers sliding down chutes. Many of the passengers can be seen running across a median of grass, some lugging their bags. Some passengers gather a distance away and watch as fire trucks circle the plane.
“Crazy, man,” one passenger is heard saying. “I’m never f—— flying again.” People around him can be heard laughing.
It took fire crews only a few minutes to bring the fire under control, officials said. As the smoke cleared, the blackened right wing could be seen sagging and touching the tarmac.
The FAA said the problem started with a blown tire, but American said the takeoff was aborted “due to an engine-related mechanical issue.”
A large rounded piece of metal believed to have come from the plane smashed through the roof of a UPS facility on the airport grounds and bounced off the floor, according to an airport worker. “It looks like a piece of a turbine disk from a jet engine,” the worker said, adding it was too hot to touch.
When you get a little older, excitement is good. It wasn’t our day to die.
— Alan Lemery, passenger
Few people were inside the building at the time and no injuries were reported. The facility is filled with workers at night. Police secured the scene and turned it over to the National Transportation Safety Board, which was investigating the incident.
The plane had started to take off around 2:35 p.m. on Runway 28R, according to the FAA. Passengers said the plane was just lifting off when it slammed back to the tarmac.
“It was a scary moment,” Marta Lemery said.
Her husband said he saw flames on the right side of the plane as the plane skidded across the runway before finally stopping. The lights went off.
The initial panic quickly faded and “people were not really jumping or pushing” as they made their way down the aisle and the chutes, said Marta Lemery.
The couple applauded the pilot for making sure everyone got out safely.
“The way the pilot conducted the situation, he did an excellent job,” Marta Lemery said.
Alan Lemery added, “When you get a little older, excitement is good. It wasn’t our day to die.”
They are booked on a Saturday morning flight for Miami, where they plan to catch a cruise.
Earlier versions of this story reversed attribution of some air traffic control radio traffic, attributing some of what the pilot said to a traffic controller, and vice versa.