It began with a strong burst of wind and pounding hail that pummeled the Aeromexico jetliner minutes after takeoff in northern Mexico, then sent it smashing belly-down onto a field near the runway.
Frightened passengers scrambled to flee as flames and blinding black smoke erupted around them. Miraculously, all 103 people on board survived the crash Tuesday.
On Wednesday, passengers described the terrifying sequence of events.
“It’s not every day you kind of fall from the sky and live to tell about it,” said Alberto Herrera, a 35-year-old webpage engineer from Chicago.
Jose Luis Corral, a 52-year-old business owner from Portland, Oregon, agreed.
“It’s a good thing we’re all alive,” said Corral, who still wore a neck brace from injuries he suffered in the crash.
“It’s so fast, terrifying to see all the people screaming,” added Corral, who was one of four people who helped the plane’s badly injured pilot escape the blaze. The pilot suffered a serious neck injury and remains hospitalized, along with 48 others injured in the crash.
Herrera said the skies were sunny as passengers boarded the flight from Durango to Mexico City Tuesday afternoon and the violent storm seemed to come from nowhere.
“When we were sitting on the plane there was a little drizzle, but nothing to worry about. It was just a little light rain, super light, like barely hitting the windows,” Herrera said.
That all changed, seemingly in an instant, he said.
“You start gaining speed and as soon as you start taking off all of the sudden the plane starts struggling and it’s getting hit with hail. The higher up we went into the storm the heavier the hail got and more wind got to us,” Herrera said.
“Then all of a sudden the plane starts rocking and it starts seriously, seriously moving around and then hitting the ground,” he said. “We skidded and hit a second time and you saw the flames. …You’re like ‘This might be bad.'”
By instinct, Herrera braced for impact and yelled for others to do the same. The woman seated next to him was able to hold onto her toddler, though the little girl suffered some scratches and may have hit her head on a seat.
Officials said the impact ripped both engines off the Embraer 190 jetliner, and fires immediately broke out in the wings.
With black smoke filling the cabin, the exits over the wings were blocked by fire. Herrera went to the back exit and tried to help as many people down as he could. The emergency slide had deployed but the fuselage was at an odd angle, so it was unusable and people had to jump to the ground.
The passengers walked back across the muddy field to the end of runway and waited there for emergency vehicles.
“Everything was so sudden I think the pilot had to do his job to make sure as many people got out alive,” Herrera said. He grabbed his passport from the seat back, but his suitcase with his only set of car keys was in the plane’s belly; Herrera has no idea what happened to it.
But he was thankful to be alive.
“Me, I just came out of it with scratches. Other people are seriously injured.”
He credits both the pilot and the fact the plane had not gained much altitude for the good outcome.
“The pilot had to execute a maneuver correctly and then we hit the storm at its peak while we were going up, and not while we were up in the air,” he said.
Durango State Gov. Jose Aispuro said all 99 passengers and four crewmembers made it off the plane, though the pilot was severely injured. Others suffered burns, some over a quarter of their bodies, said Durango state Health Ministry spokesman Fernando Ros.
Aispuro said none of the injuries were life-threatening. He said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the crash. Mechanical failure and human error could be factors, but certainly the weather wasn’t favorable.
Mexico’s Transport Department said the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was sending two investigators to assist in the investigation, and the plane’s manufacturer will also participate.
The department did not immediately answer questions about whether the airport was equipped with a Low Level Wind Shear Alert System that can detect weather conditions like severe down drafts or microbursts.