Japan probes plane fire that killed 5; voice recorder from coast guard flight found

Airline and land ministry decline to comment directly on exchanges between flight controllers and the two planes, citing the ongoing investigation

By AFP

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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Published: Wed 3 Jan 2024, 12:58 PM

Japanese investigators on Wednesday probed a near-catastrophic collision at Tokyo's Haneda Airport of a coast guard plane and a passenger jet that killed five people, with almost 400 others narrowly escaping a raging inferno.

All but one of the six people on the smaller aircraft were killed, but all 379 Japan Airlines passengers and crew escaped down emergency slides minutes before the Airbus was engulfed in flames late Tuesday.

The blackened husk of the airliner, still sitting on the tarmac Wednesday, bore witness to just how dangerous their escape had been. Several hundred metres (yards) away lay the remains of the coast guard's DHC-8 aircraft.

The captain of the coast guard plane -- which had been bound for the New Year's Day earthquake zone in central Japan -- was its lone survivor but suffered serious injuries.

Footage on Tuesday showed a ball of fire erupting from underneath the airliner shortly after landing and coming to a halt on its nose after its front landing gear failed.

As people slid to safety, dozens of fire engines with blue and red flashing lights sprayed the flames, but the entire fuselage was soon ablaze. It took eight hours to finally extinguish the fire.

"It was getting hot inside the plane, and I thought, to be honest, I would not survive," one female passenger told broadcaster NHK.

"I thought we landed normally. But then I realised I was smelling smoke," a woman with a small child told NHK.

"I needed to protect my daughter. That was the only thing in my mind," she added.

Another passenger described surviving the crash as a "miracle".

"I bounced off my seat from the impact when we landed," the 28-year-old man told Nikkei Asia.

"We made it just in the nick of time. It's a miracle we survived."

Takuya Fujiwara from the Japan Transport Safety Board told reporters that the flight recorder and the voice recorder from the coast guard plane had been found, but those of the passenger jet were still being sought.

"We are surveying the situation. Various parts are scattered on the runway," Fujiwara said, adding that the authority planned to interview several people involved.

Asked at a briefing whether the Japan Airlines flight had landing permission, officials at the major carrier said: "Our understanding is that it was given."

But JAL and the land ministry declined to comment directly on exchanges between flight controllers and the two planes, citing the ongoing investigation.

In a recording from Haneda's control tower apparently made in the moments before the collision, available on a site that broadcasts live air traffic signals, a voice is heard advising JAL's flight to "continue approach".

NHK reported that the control tower had instructed the coast guard plane to hold short of the runway.

But the broadcaster also quoted an unnamed coast guard official as saying that the pilot, Genki Miyamoto, 39, said immediately after the accident that he had permission to take off.

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