KINGSTON, Jamaica - Passengers on American Airlines Flight 331 had endured the crowded airports and delays of holiday travel, and were moments from their Caribbean destination. Suddenly, everything seemed to spin out of control.
Touching down Tuesday night in a fierce rain, the Boeing 737-800 slammed into the runway of Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport. It skidded to a halt at the edge of the sea, leaving battered and bruised passengers screaming in panic as a jet-fuel smell spread through the darkened cabin, which had cracked open in places.
"I just wanted to get the hell out of there, as far as I could, because I could smell the fumes, and I knew that if it blew, it could be a pretty big fireball," said Gary Wehrwein, 67, who was traveling with his wife, Pilar Abaurrea, from Keene, N.H.
All 154 people aboard survived, with 92 taken to hospitals and 13 admitted, but none of the injuries was considered life-threatening, said Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz. One woman underwent surgery for a broken nose and cuts to her face.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said 76 of the passengers were Americans.
The jet came to a stop on the sandy edge of an airport access road - a "Christmas miracle," said Transport Minister Mike Henry.
"If the plane was going faster, it would have gone into the sea," Henry said.
In daylight yesterday, as soldiers stood around the wrecked jet, the damage was clear: The fuselage was cracked open, its left main landing gear had collapsed, and its nose was crushed and pointing off toward the sea.
Members of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board were assisting an investigation led by Jamaica's government, but there was no immediate explanation for what led the jet to overshoot the runway.
Some aviation experts speculated that the pilot had been descending too fast for the conditions. Former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, who is not involved in the investigation, said the accident might have involved hydroplaning.
NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said that the flight-data recorder had been recovered and that investigators were working to retrieve the cockpit voice recorder.
Investigators were expected to analyze, among other things, whether the jet should have been landing in such bad weather, said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith, though he added that other planes had landed safely in the heavy rain.
The flight's captain has worked for American for 22 years and has about 2,700 flight hours on 737s, and the first officer is a 10-year employee with more than 5,000 hours on that plane model, said another American spokesman, Tim Wagner.
For the passengers, what seemed most startling was how a bumpy but otherwise ordinary trip descended so quickly into chaos.
Flight 331, which originated at Reagan National Airport in Washington, took off from Miami International Airport at 8:52 p.m. and arrived at Kingston at 10:22 p.m. It carried a crew of six and 148 passengers, many of them Jamaicans coming home for Christmas, officials said.
In-flight turbulence had forced the crew to halt the beverage service three times before finally giving up, passengers said.
Before descending, the pilot warned of more turbulence, but said it most likely would not be much worse, Abaurrea said.
"All of a sudden, when it hit the ground, the plane was kind of bouncing," she said. "Someone said the plane was skidding, and there was panic."
There was no time to feel afraid, Wehrwein said. Immediately after impact, he recalled, he was hit by a panel that fell from the ceiling, and then the jet came to an abrupt halt.
"I said, 'Oh, my God, we crashed,' then I got hit in [the] back," Wehrwein said.
He and his wife recalled a hissing sound, perhaps from the release of oxygen, and a mad scramble to get out the rear emergency exit with the help of the shouting flight crew.
"To me, it's a miracle to be alive," Wehrwein said. "So, I'm just grateful for that."