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December 25, 2008

Worrisome Details of the Denver Crash

by Barbara S. Peterson

Hearing about the horrific crash of a Continental Airlines 737 in Denver this week brought back memories. Remember the Air France crash in Toronto three years ago, when an A340 careened off a slick runway and into a ravine? Or the British Airways accident in Heathrow last January in which the pilot crashed a 777 in a field just across the road from the runway he was heading for? In each of those cases, the 100 percent survival rate was described as "a miracle" or "amazing," although some of the hundreds aboard were seriously injured as they exited the planes on emergency chutes. But, as I wrote in a story about surviving evacuations, it's not a miracle; it's the result of many years of safety research, which have resulted in far more stringent rules covering everything from the flammabilty of seat fabric to aisle lighting.

Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief at the outcome in Colorado (whose cause is under investigation), but there are some worrisome details, including a report that some seats broke loose. In 2005 the FAA required airlines to install stronger seats, but it exempted older planes. Moreover, of the 115 passengers and crew aboard Continental flight 1404, five landed in the hospital and more than 30 others sustained injuries. I know firsthand how hard it is to scramble out of a plane on one of those evacuation chutes--I tried it myself during an evacuation safety training course at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City, and the results were not pretty. I actually bounced off the chute and fell off the side, sustaining rope burns and scrapes on my arms and legs. It's the evacuation that usually causes the bulk of injuries in a crash of Denver's kind, not the accident itself. And it's a reminder of why everyone should pay close attention to those snooze-inducing safety announcements at the beginning of their trips.

Further reading:
* More details from the Denver crash
* Tips for surviving an evacuation
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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