"It's a miracle. I am not the only one who's alive. Everyone got away with their life. Nowhere in the world does that happen when a plane crashes," said 54 year-old Michael Nedd yesterday. Nedd, who returned to Guyana from a five-week visit to the United States, was one of 163 people who survived the rough landing of Caribbean Airlines' (CAL) flight BW523 at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA), Timehri, yesterday morning. Nedd, still in shock but happy for life, was among the passengers who pulled the emergency exit door when the pilot failed to stop the Boeing 737 aircraft on the runway at the CJIA. CAL, in a media statement, said one of its nine Boeing 737-800s originating in New York for Trinidad and Tobago en route to Guyana, was involved in a "runway excursion" at the CJIA in Guyana at 1.32 yesterday morning.
Reports from Guyana say the aircraft overshot the 7,400-foot (2,200-metre) runway barely missing a 200-foot (60-metre) ravine which could have resulted in dozens of fatalities. The plane broke into two causing injuries to passengers but no fatalities. "The pilot came down very hard. He was braking all the time and people were hitting their heads against the seats. The next thing I saw was the whole front of the plane fall apart. I thought to myself that we're all dead now," he said. "I pulled the emergency door and then I looked for my wife who was sitting next to me. I jumped down and I fell and rolled under the plane. Then my wife jumped and fell on top of me. We both moved away from the plane," he said. Nedd said he was still surprised over the incident because the pilot never indicated there was a problem before he attempted to land the aircraft. He pointed out there was a pilot change at Piarco.
"We didn't hear a word from him. Maybe he didn't have time to do that. But we realised that something was wrong," he explained. "It was a horrible experience. Women were screaming. Babies were crying. The plane did not circle around. It came down too fast, too hard and too short. Something went wrong. We don't know what happened. We didn't see him (the pilot) after," he observed. Nedd said the chute at the back of the plane deployed because someone else at the rear of the aircraft had opened that emergency door. This, he said, enabled some passengers to slide down from the aircraft but most of them had to jump. He pointed out that "sandy" land next to airport made jumping from the aircraft easier. "We had to get away. The engine was sparking and we could smell the fuel in the air. There was one passenger who was in a wheelchair. I don't know how she got out. Someone must have helped her. I know she came out," he said.
Nedd said they waited for about two hours for help. Over 101 passengers were treated at two hospitals-the Diamond Diagnotic Centre and the Georgetown Public Hospital (GPH). Five remained warded at the GPH up to press time. Trade Minister Stephen Cadiz, who was in Guyana on government business, visited some of the passengers at the hospital yesterday. "Everything's more of less settled. Everyone's being looked after," he said. Cadiz pointed out that most of the injuries arose from passengers who were trying to get out of the aircraft and not from the incident itself. "It's a traumatic experience. Especially for an airline that's had such a flawless record from BWIA to now," he said.
In April, a CAL flight from Guyana to Piarco had to turn around when an engine sucked in a bird. The bird strike disabled the left engine of the aircraft resulting in an emergency landing in Guyana, 11 minutes in flight. The CJIA re-opened at 10 am yesterday after suspending flights in the wake of the incident while an investigation was being conducted. CAL said the perimeter around the aircraft was cordoned off and being guarded by the Guyana Defence Force and police. A Delta Airlines flight to Georgetown had to be re-routed yesterday morning. By midday two fully booked flights, one from Liat and the other from CAL, left Piarco International Airport Guyana bound. A third was scheduled for departure at 8 pm.
Meanwhile, Guyana's Civil Aviation Authority and the US National Transport Safety Board will begin investigations today. Roodlal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and the Environment who was also in Guyana on government business, said he's very grateful no one was killed. He said the black box from the aircraft will be shipped to the US for analysis today. He said the crew will also have to be interviewed as part of the process to understand how the incident occurred.
"That's the normal type of analysis that's done when these accidents occur," he said. "I've seen the aircraft up close. And having seen the wreckage, it's an act of God that no one or no group of people lost their lives," he said. Moonilal observed that it was the worst incident involving the majority State-owned airline. Transport Minister Devant Maharaj said T&T's Civil Aviation Authority will also provide assistance as the aircraft belongs to this country. Director of the Civil Aviation Authority, Ramesh Lutchmedial said he's in Guyana to assist in the matter.
Prime Minister visits
Prime Minister Kamla Persad- Bissessar and a Government team comprising Foreign Affairs and Communication Minister Surajrattan Rambachan, Local Government Minister Chandresh Sharma, Transport Minister Devant Maharaj, National Security Advisor Gary Griffith and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Rodger Samuel visited Guyana last night.
She told the media yesterday she was grateful that everyone is alive. "There's no doubt they were traumatised. It's a nature of a miracle that all are alive," she said minutes before she departed for Guyana. Moonilal said Persad-Bissessar would visit the damaged aircraft and injured passengers at the Georgetown Public Hospital.
CAL was very pro-active in responding issuing three media releases and holding three news conferences-one yesterday morning and the other last evening at Piarco. Top officials of the company also held a news conference in Guyana around noon yesterday. In its third statement yesterday, the airline said it "understands the public's desire to gain information related to this event and is fully committed to providing details. We are guided by both Guyanese and US authorities which limits our availability to communicate details of the event unless they are confirmed by the relevant authorities."