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Passengers flee as aircraft explodes

Naha (Japan), Aug. 20 (AP): They made it out just in the nick of time.

The 157 passengers and eight crew members had barely finished sliding down the emergency chutes of the smoking China Airlines jet today when it suddenly exploded, and flames engulfed the centre of the craft.

For the scores of holiday-makers and others who had flown on the Boeing 737-800 from the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, to Naha on the Japanese island of Okinawa it was a moment of sheer terror — even if there were no serious injuries.

[Many airlines in India also use the Boeing 737-800 aircraft that was engulfed in flames in Naha today.]

Screams erupted from the tarmac as passengers raced to get away from the burning plane, and emergency personnel moved forward to begin putting out the flames.

A figure thought to be the pilot hung onto the cockpit window for several seconds before dropping to the tarmac and sprinting away from the exploding plane.

A Taiwanese woman said she was stricken with fear the moment she slid down the chute. “I was running and crying,” said the woman, who declined to identify herself. “Running and crying.”

Another passenger who gave only his surname, Chen, said he started running the moment he slid off the plane. “I ran so hard my sock tore,” he said. “I think I got my life back.”

Footage from Japanese broadcaster NHK showed a lone firefighter trying to douse the blaze with what appeared to be a chemical retardant immediately after the explosion. But the plane was quickly rocked by two more explosions, which brought the fuselage crashing onto the tarmac.

Japanese Transport Ministry official Akihiko Tamura said that airport traffic controllers had received no report from the pilot of the Taiwanese airliner indicating anything was wrong as it came in to land, and even as it stopped near the terminal to let passengers disembark.

“The fire started when the left engine exploded a minute after the aircraft entered the parking spot,” he said.

China Airlines spokesman Sun Hung-wen said that as the 737 tried to come to rest, it skidded, igniting a fire that prompted the emergency evacuation.

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