A military-charted jet carrying 143 people landed hard, then bounced and swerved as the pilot struggled to control it amid thunder and lightning, ultimately skidding off the runway and coming to a crashing halt in a river at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
It meant chaos and terror for passengers in the Boeing 737, as the plane jolted back and forth and oxygen masks deployed, then overhead bins opened, sending contents spilling out.
But authorities said everyone on board emerged without critical injuries Friday night, lining up on the wings as they waited to be rescued.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators Saturday to the crash site in the St. John’s River in north Florida, where the aircraft was still partially submerged in shallow water and its nose cone was sliced off, apparently from the impact. Several pets were still on the plane as well, and their status wasn’t immediately clear. A Navy statement early Saturday said safety issues prevented rescuers from immediately retrieving the animals.
The flight took off Friday from the U.S. military base in Cuba with 136 passengers and seven crew members. It was a regular charter run by Miami Air International, which has many military contracts, including weekly flights between the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Jacksonville Air Station as well as Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The company didn’t immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press.
Authorities say everyone on board the flight was alive and accounted for, but nearly two dozen people were taken to local hospitals. Most have since been released.
It wasn’t immediately clear what went wrong. Boeing said in a tweet Friday night that it was investigating: “We are aware of an incident in Jacksonville, Fla., and are gathering information.” The Federal Aviation Administration was referring media inquiries to NAS Jacksonville. The NTSB dispatched a team of 16 investigators to determine what happened.
Team members recovered the plane’s flight data recorder Saturday.
Connor said he didn’t know what impact the weather had on the flight. “I was at home when this happened and there were thunderstorms and lightning,” he said.
The plane had been expected to return to Cuba on Saturday to carry other members of the military, lawyers and others to Andrews after this week’s military commission hearings of people charged with war crimes.
It wasn’t immediately clear how long it would take to remove the plane from the river. Connor said the landing gear appeared to be resting on the riverbed, making it unlikely for the aircraft to float away. He said crews began working to contain any jet fuel leaks almost immediately after securing the passengers’ safety.