FORT LAUDERDALE (REUTERS) - An engine on a passenger jet bound for Caracas, Venezuela, burst into flames while taxiing for takeoff at a Florida airport on Thursday (Oct 29), forcing frightened passengers to exit the plane using inflatable emergency slides.
Fifteen people were injured, one seriously, as 101 passengers and crew evacuated the Dynamic International Airways' Boeing 767-200ER within minutes of the pilots realising there was a problem.
Television images showed the plane surrounded by white foam and firefighter trucks in Fort Lauderdale, its left engine badly charred.
The 29-year-old aircraft was leaking fuel before departure, the Federal Aviation Administration said, and its crew was warned about the leak by a jet taxiing behind it.
In video shot by a passenger on another plane, towering clouds of thick gray smoke could be seen billowing from the Dynamic flight before the blaze was extinguished.
Most of the injuries were bumps and bruises, spokesman for the Broward Sheriff's Office Michael Jachles told reporters. One child was among those being treated at Broward Health Medical Centre, a hospital spokesman said.
Luis Campana, a 71-year-old rancher, was travelling to Venezuela's Guarico state with his wife and sister. "It was a real scare," Campana told Reuters at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He said he had been sitting near the front of the plane as the pilot put the thrust on to taxi up the runway.
"The engine exploded. As we were getting out of the plane down the chute, the smoke was beginning to enter and the engine was in flames," he said.
The accident could have been catastrophic had the jet taken off with a fuel leak, Greg Feith, a former crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, told Reuters.
"Once the aircraft is airborne, it becomes a flying blowtorch," Feith said. "The fire intensifies and you don't know what system or structure it's going to burn through."
Fire could damage a wing and fuselage, or cripple hydraulic and electronic control systems, Feith said, potentially making an emergency landing impossible. It could also ignite fuel tanks in the wings, especially if fuel vapor were present, he said.
"ENGINE'S ON FIRE!"
Flight crew audio broadcast by CNN captured the moments those on the Venezuela-bound jet were warned of the danger.
"Hey, yeah, Dynamic, the left engine looks like it's leaking, I don't know, a lot of fuel. There is fluid leaking out of the left engine," a voice can be heard saying.
A short time later another voice says, "Engine's on fire! Engine's on fire! We're calling the fire engine right now."
Officials got a call at 12.34 pm local time (1634 GMT) that Dynamic Airways flight 405 experienced a left engine fire while taxiing on one of the airport's two runways.
Passengers had been completely evacuated by 1237 pm, Jachles of the sheriff's office told a news conference.
The airport reopened about three hours later.
Natalia Vargas, 50, said her 75-year-old mother phoned her from the plane and said there had been two strong explosions. "There was a lot of smoke," said Vargas, who lives in Miami and is originally from Venezuela. "Everyone was very nervous, but everyone was off the plane quickly," she said.
The fire came less than two months after an engine on a British Airways jetliner caught fire in Las Vegas as the plane was about to take off for London, forcing all 172 passengers and crew to escape down emergency slides.
The NTSB is sending four people to Fort Lauderdale to investigate the latest fire, the agency said.
Feith, the former NTSB investigator, said they will try to determine the source of the fire and why it caused so much damage, and could recommend modifications to the 767 fleet and general airline procedures to prevent a recurrence.
Greensboro, North Carolina-based Dynamic said it has operated wide-body aircraft since 2009 and will investigate the fire.
The carrier flies from Fort Lauderdale and New York's JFK airport to Caracas and Maracaibo in Venezuela, as well as to Georgetown in neighbouring Guyana, according to its website.
Dynamic said it was arranging accommodation and transport for all the passengers impacted, and that it expects to continue operations as per its schedule on Friday.
The plane was powered by Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines, said a spokesman from Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp. Boeing Co said in a statement it is providing technical assistance to the NTSB investigation.
Dynamic's 767-200ER was built in 1986, and only seven such planes of that age or older remain in service out of 65 built, according to aircraft appraisal firm Collateral Verifications.