Flight 1248 was routine -- until landing

Passengers on Baltimore-to-Chicago trip knew something was wrong when plane failed to slow down

December 10, 2005|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

At first, there was no indication that Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 from Baltimore was in danger.

The hourlong flight was routine, and few passengers took notice when the plane circled Midway International Airport for 20 to 30 minutes to give plows more time to clear several inches of snow from the runway.

But moments after the wheels of the Boeing 737 finally touched down on a slippery runway in Chicago, passengers noticed that the jet wasn't slowing. The plane was barreling down the runway, headed for a busy city street.

"I've flown into that airport a million times, so I knew it was taking a long time to stop," Greg Liebreich, a businessman who was returning from the Baltimore area to his home in Oak Park, Ill., said yesterday. "And that ultimately maybe we weren't going to stop at all."

Some passengers put their heads in their laps or braced themselves against the seat in front of them. Many said they watched in horror as the plane crashed through a metal barrier and onto the street.

"And then we came to an abrupt stop," Liebreich said.

The 98 passengers on board the jet walked away from the crash; only three suffered minor injuries. But a child, 6-year-old Joshua Woods of Leroy, Ind., was killed when the plane struck the car in which he was riding.

A family lawyer told the Associated Press that the boy had been eating a McDonald's meal and singing along to Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" when the plane crashed on top of the car.

"His father looked out and saw a turbine engine turning right outside the window," Ronald Stearney Jr. said.

It was the first fatal crash in Southwest Airlines' 35-year history.

Some airline passengers said they felt helpless as they watched emergency crews scramble to help the Woods family and four other people in a second car that was also struck by the plane at 55th Street and Central Avenue.

In all, 12 people were injured, according to emergency and hospital officials. All but three had been released yesterday.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board began seeking a cause yesterday as the crippled plane, its nose slanting downward and front wheels missing, remained in the intersection, where officials said it could be until tomorrow.

NTSB member Ellen Engleman Conners said at a news conference that a variety of factors need to be looked at before any cause is determined. She said the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders had been transported to Washington for review.

Conners said the investigation into the crash could take as long as a year.

Though the airport had 7 inches of snow, aviation officials said conditions at the time were acceptable. Visibility was one-quarter to one-half of a mile.

Midway has shorter runways than most major airports because it was originally built to handle smaller propeller planes. The Southwest flight landed on the airport's longest runway, according to airport officials.

As part of the investigation, Conners said that routine toxicology tests would be given to the crew. Both the pilot and co-pilot were based in Baltimore, according to an airline spokeswoman, but their names were not released.

Liebreich and other passengers said there was no warning from the pilot or crew that it was going to be a rough or dangerous landing.

But once the plane touched down, it was clear that something was wrong. Instead of slowing, the plane continued to roll down the runway, and continued still when the runway ran out. The plane slammed into a metal safety barrier, and passenger Katie Duda, 29, of Fells Point, said there was a loud noise.

"There was a huge crash," she said. "And the plane flew up a little bit and came down real hard."

Liebreich said that once the plane came to a halt he was afraid that it might explode. He said some passengers smelled jet fuel. Still, no one panicked or got hysterical.

"After we stopped, the captain came out and it was very calm," Liebreich said. "No one was freaking out."

He said the captain used a bullhorn to communicate with passengers because the plane had lost electrical power. The captain instructed passengers to take a coat and leave other belongings behind. Some passengers went down the plane's inflatable slides in blowing snow, while others used stairs at the rear of the plane.

Once outside, they got a look at the damage the crash had caused.

"I just remember staring at the plane, noticing how mangled it was, and being amazed at how nothing really happened to anybody in the plane," Liebreich said.

Passengers stood in the snow for a half-hour before buses arrived to keep them warm. It was another half-hour before they got to the terminal.

Southwest Airlines arranged for stranded passengers to stay in local hotels and gave them vouchers to cover the cost of meals.

Towson resident Lisa Spallitta, 35, said she spent the night at a Hilton not far from the airport. Her suitcase, and her pajamas, were still in the plane.

Back at Midway yesterday, Spallitta said the airline had booked her a ticket on another flight so that she could meet friends in Seattle. However, flights were delayed by the snowstorm and airport closure.

And so, as she waited for her first meal in more than 12 hours - a hearty breakfast of eggs and hash browns - Spallitta lamented that her journey was still far from over.

"It looks like I'll be a while," she said.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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