All 300 people aboard an Emirates airliner survived a crash landing in Dubai on Wednesday, scrambling down emergency slides before flames consumed the plane in an accident that halted flights for hours at the world's third-busiest airport. One firefighter was killed battling the blaze.
The incident was the most serious ever for Emirates, which has grown at a breakneck pace over the last three decades and turned its hometown of Dubai into a major long-haul international air hub. It was the second major air disaster for a Dubai government-backed airline in less than five months.
Speaking to reporters in Dubai, Emirates Group CEO and Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said 10 people were hospitalized, but stressed that all passengers were safely evacuated before the plane was engulfed in a fireball.
The accident happened around 12:45 p.m. local time as Flight EK521 was arriving from the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram.
Airline officials were not able to say what caused the accident, though the chief executive ruled out "anything in terms of security issues at this stage." He said the airline would cooperate fully with local authorities during the investigation.
"We do not have ... all the information. Thankfully there (were) no fatalities among our passengers and crew," Sheikh Ahmed said in a video statement released within hours of the crash. "Our thoughts are with everyone involved."
The Boeing 777-300 was carrying 282 passengers and 18 crew members from 20 different countries, according to the airline. Those onboard included 226 Indians, 24 Britons, 11 Emiratis, and six each from the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The pilots were Emirati and Australian and each had over 7,000 hours' flight experience, Sheikh Ahmed said.
A problem with the plane's landing gear appeared to have at least been a contributing factor. Video shot by a passenger on another flight showed the plane tilted to its right side and careening on its belly as thick smoke poured out. The right wing looked to have been torn from the fuselage during the crash.
Emirates received the plane new in 2003 and it was up-to-date with safety inspections, the CEO said. He described wind conditions as normal at the time of the crash, but said investigators are examining whether wind shear could have played a role.
"Everything was very much clear to land," he said.
The accident closed Dubai International Airport to traffic for about six hours, with flights resuming before 7 p.m. local time. Emirates predicted there would be an eight-hour delay in operations across its network, disrupting travel plans for thousands of passengers during the busy summer vacation season.
Passengers described hearing a loud noise as the plane touched down after what until that point had seemed to be an ordinary flight.
"It was a big noise," said Shadi Kochuktty, a passenger from India. "We hadn't heard any announcement, but it was a big noise."
From that terrifying moment on, all those on board the Boeing 777 faced the nightmare all white-knuckle fliers fear: Smoke filling the cabin. People screaming. And the rush to escape.
"All the people were shouting, all the children, all the women," said Arun Krishna, an Indian national.
Flight attendants jumped out of their seats as the plane screeched to a stop, opening emergency doors on the craft and inflating the emergency slides.
Asked what the flight attendants said, Kochuktty offered just one word: "Escape!"
By the time firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze, the roof of the plane had been consumed and scorched from the cockpit all the way to the tail.
Mohammed al-Marri, the director-general of residency and foreigner affairs at Dubai airport, told The Associated Press that several passengers lost their passports during the quick exit from the aircraft. Authorities were able to admit those affected to the country based on flight manifest details, he said.
Emirates' typically bustling base in the gleaming Terminal 3 was hushed after the accident. Flat-screen televisions showed all incoming Emirates flights delayed or rescheduled.
Dubai resident Girisankal Gangadhakan said his wife called him after the plane landed to tell him that she and their three children on board had crash-landed but were safe.
"I was shocked when I heard," he said.
Flight EK521 departed at 10:19 a.m. from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. Many blue-collar migrant workers employed in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations come from the state, which is also a popular beachside tourist destination.
T.P. Seetharam, India's ambassador to the UAE, said Indian diplomats met directly with several passengers at the airport.
"Many of them are in shock after such an event, and there may be minor bruises," he said.
Dubai International is by far the Mideast's busiest airport, and is the world's busiest air hub in terms of international passenger traffic. It handled some 78 million passengers last year.
Many of those travelers arrived aboard Emirates, by far the region's biggest carrier. The airline has a good safety record, with no other major accidents recorded since its founding in 1985.
The Boeing 777 model is one of the workhorses of Emirates' fleet. It operates more than 120 of the twin-engine planes, more than any other airline.
The Emirates accident follows the crash of a FlyDubai 737-800 jetliner in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in March that killed all 62 onboard. The two airlines operate independently of one another, though they share the same chairman and are both ultimately owned by the government of Dubai.