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Burning plane evacuee: ‘It kept exploding’

/ Source: TODAY contributor

It was a routine flight from Australia and a ho-hum landing in Japan. But when someone looked out the window and saw flames leaping from the wing of the jetliner, deplaning became anything but routine.

Pamela Caruso was in row 14 with her two daughters, aged 9 and 6, and her husband, an American serviceman. She was collecting baggage from the overhead bins when passengers started yelling.

“Someone yelled that they had a fire,” she told TODAY’s Ann Curry via telephone Tuesday.

Caruso looked out the window and saw a flash of flames on the wing of the plane.

“It seemed that it had gone out, and then it flared — the entire front of the plane, through every window you could just see flames,” Caruso said.

The emergency exit two rows behind them was over the wing that was engulfed in flames, and the windows leading to the front exit were cracking from the heat.

“I was very frightened,” Caruso said. “But people weren’t panicked. I can’t tell you why; they really weren’t.”

Her husband, who could not be interviewed because of his military status, had been retrieving a pair of crutches for a man in a row behind them when the fire erupted. He finished the job and handed them to the man. Then he and his family picked up their carry-ons and headed for the front emergency exit behind the 60 or so people who had been seated in front of them.

Smooth evacuation
“We filed off very easily,” Pamela Caruso told Curry. “We just jumped off and ran.”

In the back of the plane — a modern Boeing 737-800 — there was some panic, she said, but not in the front. But front and back, all 165 passengers and crew would get off safely.

The plane had not parked at a terminal but on the tarmac of the airport in Naha on the island of Okinawa. Normally, the passengers would have deplaned down stairways rolled up to the plane and walked to the terminal a couple of hundred yards away. Instead, they had to slide down the emergency chutes, hit the ground and run.Caruso said she didn’t look back until the family got to the terminal and safety. By then, the plane was totally engulfed in the fire, which has been attributed to a leaking fuel line.

“It kept exploding and exploding and exploding,” she said.

The family had gone to Australia on vacation and also to shop for back-to-school supplies and clothing for their two girls. Although they rescued their carry-on luggage, they lost everything else they’d brought with them.

“That’s been hard on the children,” Caruso told Curry. “But we’ll replace everything.”

She said she was impressed with how well her daughters reacted and with the way all the passengers handled themselves in a situation that had the potential to be a major tragedy.The whole episode — from the fire breaking out to running to safety — had taken no more than a couple of minutes.

“I’m very proud of them,” Caruso said of her children. “They went down that chute and just ran. There were people who helped them get over a fence. Someone lifted them right over. Everybody helped each other. It was a good moment.”