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Published: Sunday, 12/21/2008

Firefighter: miracle no one died on Denver runway

Continental Airlines Flight 1404 rests in a snow-covered shallow ravine Sunday after veering off the runway Saturday night. Continental Airlines Flight 1404 rests in a snow-covered shallow ravine Sunday after veering off the runway Saturday night.

DENVER It was a miracle that no one was killed when an airliner veered sharply off a runway during takeoff, burst into flames and nearly broke apart, firefighters said Sunday.

There was no official word on the possible cause of the crash of Continental Flight 1404 at Denver International Airport, which injured 38 people. Cockpit and voice recorders were recovered and appeared to be in good condition, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Sunday.

The entire right side of the Boeing 737-500 was burned in the Saturday evening accident, and melted plastic from overhead compartments dripped onto the seats.

It was a miracle ... that everybody survived the impact and the fire, said Bill Davis, an assistant Denver fire chief assigned to the airport. It was just amazing.

A crack encircled much of the fuselage near the trailing edge of the wings, and the left engine had broken loose and come to a rest about 30 feet away, Chief Davis said.

Chief Davis, one of the firefighters who rushed to the scene, said the plane came to a rest about 200 yards from one of the airport s four fire stations. He said passengers walked out of the ravine in 24-degree cold and crowded inside the station.

The 110 passengers and five crew members left the plane on emergency slides, officials said.

Passenger Emily Pellegrini told the Denver Post that as the plane headed down the runway, It was bumpy, then it was bumpier, then it wasn t bumpy.

Gabriel Trejos told KUSA-TV in Denver the plane buckled toward its middle and that the seats felt like they were closing in on him, his pregnant wife, and his 13-month-old son, who was on his lap. His knees were bruised from the seat in front of him.

Maria Trejos told KUSA that there was an explosion and that the right side of the plane, where they were sitting, became engulfed in flames. The family used an emergency exit and slid down the wing of the jet to the ground.

Thirty-eight people suffered injuries including broken bones. Two people were initially listed in critical condition at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, but were upgraded Sunday, one to serious and one to fair, spokesman Tonya Ewers said.

Continental Airlines spokesman Julie King said fewer than seven people were still in the hospital Sunday morning. She declined to comment on the types of injuries.

Five of the six airport s six runways were reopened Sunday morning and airport officials didn t expect any delays related to airport operations, said airport spokesman Jeff Green.

The weather was cold but not snowy when the plane took off on a flight to Houston around 6:20 p.m. Saturday.

The plane veered off course about 2,000 feet from the end of the runway and did not appear to have gotten airborne, city aviation manager Kim Day said.

Debris was scattered on the runway about 200 yards from the wrecked plane.

The plane came to a rest in a shallow, snow-covered ravine between runways. The runways are elevated so rain and snow will drain away.

Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was supporting the NTSB investigation and sending representatives to Denver on Sunday night. He declined to comment on whether Boeing had any indication of possible problems with the 737-500 jetliner.

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