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Passengers see fire, flee Delta plane

Seven people were hurt sliding down emergency chutes when an apparent engine fire triggered a dash for the exits.

Published June 24, 2003

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TAMPA - Business traveler Robin Moch had just settled into her seat Monday morning aboard a Delta Air Lines flight bound for Atlanta.

As the plane pulled away from the gate at Tampa International Airport, a fireball shot out of its right engine.

"We hadn't made the turn to get on the runway yet and suddenly you just heard screams, and you heard pops and you smelled smoke," Moch said.

"Get out! Get out!" passengers yelled. A young man in front of Moch pulled open an emergency exit door and helped others onto the wing of the plane, which had stopped.

Seven passengers were taken to area hospitals. But their injuries weren't from the fire, which was small, brief and outside the plane. They all sustained minor injuries sliding down the plane's long, steep, inflatable emergency chutes, Tampa fire officials said.

Getting down those chutes was "a truly athletic event," said Moch, 38, who was sitting in a middle seat in the 29th row.

TIA's control tower received the first report of the fireball at 7:11 a.m. as the Boeing 757, which held 161 passengers, was pulling away from Gate E-72.

The evacuation of Delta Flight 1036 might have been triggered by passengers, not the crew.

"We regret that the evacuation was not at the command of the captain," the airline said in a statement.

Peggy Estes, a Delta spokeswoman in Atlanta, said a fireball from the engine - called a "hot start" - is not unusual in early morning flights.

When an aircraft sits overnight and fuel condensation builds on an engine, a flame might be visible for a second or two when the plane starts up, Estes said.

"But the flame quickly goes out and the engine continues to run," she said.

Some passengers might have seen these flames and opened the emergency door, which deploys the chutes, she said.

Monday's incident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Delta's procedures call for passengers to wait for a flight attendant's instructions. Some passengers did so Monday and eventually deplaned the normal way, through the ramp.

But when the flames were first spotted, most of the flight attendants were strapped in their jump seats, Moch said. She didn't see any of them around.

There was little time to think, she said. The chutes were deployed and "you jump and you went," she said.

Some passengers were sliding on top of each other. Some carried babies or small children while going down. Some held their carry-on luggage or laptop computer cases.

Fire engines arrived within minutes. By that time, most passengers were off the plane, said Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade.

"I saw chutes on the right and left side of that aircraft, sticking out, when I got on the scene," Wade said.

There was no fire or visible damage to the plane, he said.

Six passengers were treated for minor injuries at St. Joseph's Hospital and one at Town & Country Hospital.

A pregnant woman injured her ankle and hip coming down the inflatable ramp, Wade said. A 16-year-old broke his wrist, and another passenger suffered a cut over an eye.

Some passengers complained of pain to their necks, shoulders, hips, backs and elbows. One 46-year-old man complained of chest pains after he came into the terminal.

The Boeing 757 is a long, narrow plane with one center aisle. It has eight exits, including two over each wing. This particular plane, built in 1987, has had a few previous problems, according to federal records.

In 1994, one engine lost power during a flight, forcing the plane to make an unscheduled landing. In 1996, the crew was forced to shut down the left engine and land because of excessive fuel consumption.

Uninjured passengers were rebooked for a 10:45 a.m. flight to Atlanta.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 24, 2003, 01:47:56]

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