A China Airlines Boeing 737-800 airliner burst into flames yesterday moments after landing on the Japanese island of Okinawa after all 165 passengers and crew made a dramatic escape.
Flames and giant plumes of black smoke erupted from the jet just after it landed at Naha Airport after a flight from Taipei.
"When we looked out the window, everything was covered with fire," an unidentified male passenger told reporters.
"I saw several passengers evacuate the plane using a chute. After a minute or so, I heard the sound of an explosion. It was a big explosion," said Tadahiro Hasuo, who told Japanese TV network NHK he felt the heat of the blast while passing Naha airport in a taxi.
Video shot by an eyewitness and broadcast on TV showed passengers sliding down two chutes on the right side of the plane, while flames and thick black smoke billowed from the left.
Early investigations in Okinawa raised the possibility that leaking fuel may have caused the blaze.
"We don't have any information that suggests the accident was linked to terrorism. There is a possibility of the engine catching fire and exploding due to a fuel leak," a Naha airport police official said.
One member of the ground crew had been injured, Kyodo news agency reported.
The flight landed using standard procedures and taxied to the designated gate, China Airlines spokesman Johnson Sun (孫鴻文) said at a news conference. The captain was later informed by the ground crew that one of the plane's engines was on fire and all 157 passengers and eight crew members were immediately evacuated by the emergency chutes, Sun said.
"We are very sorry and regret the accident," he said.
Following the explosion, the Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) and Aviation Safety Council (ASC) held press conferences in Taipei to assuage public fears.
CAA Director-General Billy Chang (張國政) said that based on Taiwan's Aviation Occurrence Investigation Act (飛航事故調查法), the authority to investigate the accident lay in Japan's Aircrafts and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission (ARAIC).
Nonetheless, the administration has formed a special task force and immediately dispatched three CAA officials to Japan to assist officials from the ARAIC in the investigation.
Chang said that the nation had 15 Boeing 737-800 model planes, 12 of which are owned by China Airlines, including the plane that burned in Okinawa. Two belong to Mandarin Airlines and one, Air Force One, is owned by the Air Force. He said that these planes had been grounded by the CAA for further inspection.
Chang said the plane that had caught fire was only five years old and had just completed its routine maintenance on July 13. He said that a preliminary investigation showed the flight's captain was informed by ground staff about the fire after the plane landed at the airport.
Meanwhile, four ASC representatives arrived at Okinawa yesterday evening to start working with ARAIC and China Airline representatives to identify the cause of the explosion.
China Airlines, Taiwan's largest carrier, purchased the B737-800 passenger jet in July 2002. The company uses the B737-800s in its fleet to fly mainly short-haul Asian routes.
James Fang (方粵強), the director of the ASC's investigation department, told the Taipei Times that this type of incident had never occurred in the past.
Most of the Taiwanese passengers on the plane had been on package tours arranged by four travel agencies in Taiwan -- South East Travel Service (東南旅行社), Gloria Tours (喜美旅行社), Daiei Travel Service (大榮旅行社) and Mic Travel Co (萬達旅行社). Their luggage was destroyed in the fire.