January 10, 2024
TOKYO – Calming passengers and quickly assessing safe exits, the crew of a Japan Airlines plane that caught fire in a Jan. 2 collision at Haneda Airport acted with professionalism to enable the “miraculous” escape of all 379 people who were aboard.
When the JAL airplane came to a stop beside the runway after colliding with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft, it had 12 crew members and 367 passengers on board, many of whom had spent their New Year’s holidays in Hokkaido.
“There is fire coming from the engine on the left side,” called out a flight attendant in charge of the second emergency exit from the front on the left side. The plane had eight exits, four each on the left and right sides.
Of the nine flight attendants on board, the chief attendant, 56, also confirmed the flames and rushed to the cockpit. The onboard intercom did not work, probably due to the impact of the landing. As soon as the captain, 50, learned of the fire from the chief, he ordered an emergency evacuation and began engine shutdown procedures.
At this time, some passengers seated near the wing also felt the heat of the flames. The tension inside the cabin intensified as they grew impatient. Shouts such as “It’s on fire” and “Open up” were heard from them.
As smoke reduced visibility inside, a flight attendant called out: “We will be OK. Please calm down!”
This is a response known as “panic control” to prevent passengers from panicking.
The cabin crew then instructed the passengers to cover their noses and mouths and to stay low as the smoke filled the cabin.
One flight attendant confirmed that there were flames outside the fuselage by looking through the window in front of an emergency exit. The crew member stayed standing in front of that exit door to prevent passengers from opening it and allowing flames to blow inside the aircraft.
The question was whether it would be possible to deploy evacuation slides for the passengers to safely evacuate to the ground. The flight attendants in charge of the eight emergency exits concluded that a safe escape should be possible at three locations — the left and right exits of the front row and the left exit of the last row — and deployed the slides there.
“Please escape in order without taking your hand luggage!” Some passengers could hear the instructions, but to reach more of them, the flight attendants also used megaphones to give instructions.
The passengers, including eight small children and two wheelchair users, slid down the slides one after the other.
The captain left the cockpit and headed toward the rear of the aircraft. He checked each row of seats to see if any passengers were left behind. After confirming that everyone had evacuated, he, as the last person, exited the plane at 6:05 p.m. Soon after, the aircraft burst into intense flames with a plume of black smoke.
If the fuselage had been damaged more severely, the fire could have spread more quickly.
“Generally speaking, if the plane tilts, and part of the wing carrying a fuel tank breaks, fire will spread very quickly,” a JAL executive said at a recent press conference.
Although a dozen passengers were injured, there were no fatalities. Foreign media outlets, such as the BBC, reported the evacuation with admiration, calling the life-saving evacuation miraculous and saying the crew did a remarkable job.
Sayori Kodama, a specially appointed professor at Meisei University and a former JAL flight attendant, praised the crew’s response in the Jan. 2 incident, saying, “As security personnel, they were focused on what they had to do to save the passengers and themselves, rather than waiting for instructions.”
According to Kodama, crew members receive drills to prepare for emergency evacuations once a year. On every flight, just before takeoff and landing, they each go over the procedures to follow in case of an accident or fire, preparing for emergencies.
Regarding the crew members, JAL President Yuji Akasaka told reporters Thursday: “I think they achieved better results than they did in training. They did their jobs thoroughly and professionally.”
The Japan Transport Safety Board, which is investigating the cause of the accident, is also looking into the circumstances surrounding the evacuation.