DENVER - Federal investigators say they will work as long as there is daylight after arriving in Denver Sunday to find out why Continental Flight 1404, which skidded off the runway on Saturday.
- Denver fliers unfazed by crash
- DIA has had few serious accidents
The Houston-bound Boeing 737-500, packed with 110 passengers and five crew members, skidded off Denver International Airport's runway 34-Right and into a ravine at 6:18 p.m. on Saturday, at the height of the holiday travel season.
Authorities say the crash injured 38 people, two of whom are listed in critical condition. Several ambulances responded to the scene, transporting the injured passengers to a number of local hospitals. Broken bones, wrenched backs and shortness of breath were among the injuries reported from the accident. (Read more about injuries.)
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) started investigating on Sunday, trying to find out why the aircraft veered 200 yards off the runway and caught fire as it tried to take off. It went into a 40 foot deep ravine.
"We are here for one and only reason - that is to find out what happened and how to prevent that from happening again," said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said during a news conference.
The NTSB says some investigators arrived on Saturday night and a full team arrived on Sunday morning, bringing a total of 15 investigators to Denver. Several more investigators will continue to work in Washington D.C.
Sumwalt says they were able to recover both the voice and data recorders from the cockpit and they appear to be in good condition, but they are covered with soot from the smoke. They were sent to Washington, D.C. for analysis.
Firefighters say they were met with heavy flames as they arrived on scene - the entire right side of the aircraft was engulfed. The flames soon spread inside the aircraft and were so hot they melted the overhead luggage bins, which dripped onto the seats below.
Sumwalt says there is extensive damage to the right side of the plane and the interior is "quite burned." He also says that the two main landing gears had sheared off from the plane and the nose gear has collapsed. One of the plane's engines also came off of the wing.
Sumwalt says it could be a year before they know exactly what happened.
Denver Fire Chief Patrick Hynes described the aftermath as "like a movie scene."
"Our rescue crews responded immediately," said Jeff Green, a spokesman for DIA. "The crash actually happened near one of our four airport fire houses."
Green says the fire crews train at least weekly at a minimum on situations like the one that unfolded on Saturday night. Firefighters practice extinguishing jet-fuel fires, and practice entering aircraft of various configurations, in case they need to fight a fire onboard, as was necessary on Flight 1404.
"I think the story speaks to the training, not only of the airport rescue crews, but also of the airline crew onboard the airplane and acting quickly to deploy the chutes and get everyone off the plane as safe and as quickly as possible," said Green.
The NTSB will be on scene on Sunday, along with officials from Continental Airlines, who will be part of the investigation.
Among the items which will be under review includes whether the aircraft every got airborne. Some passengers believe it did, briefly.
Hynes says judging from the debris scattered across the runway, it appears the plane did get into the air. He says the wheels of the jet were sheared off.
Investigators will also try to determine whether the jet was ablaze before or after it skidded off the runway.
Meanwhile, the airport says it plans to operate as best it can, but Green advises passengers to check their flight status and to give themselves as much time as possible.
Following the accident, the west airfield of DIA was closed, but Green says one of those three runways has since reopened. He says they hope to have a second runway on the west airfield open Sunday morning, which would mean the airport would have five of its six runways operable.
"We're hoping to keep delays at a minimum, at least as far as airport operations are concerned," said Green.
Continental Airlines Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner recorded a message for employees on Sunday, offering support to those involved and thanks to those who worked so quickly to save lives.
"I want to give my most sincere thanks to the health care professionals, airports officials and everyone else including my Continental Airlines and the staff of other airlines that responded to the accident site to assist us and elsewhere. The fire at the site was extinguished thanks to the professionals in the nearby fire stations," said Kellner.
He went on to say that when something like this happens you want to know why and you want to make sure it never happens again.
He says Continental is offering full and complete cooperation with the federal investigation.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper released a statement about the crash on Sunday:
"Our thoughts are with the passengers and crews who were aboard Continental Flight 1404 last night. We hope for a quick and complete recovery for those who were injured. We thank the flight crews, our fire department and airport teams, and area medical personnel for responding quickly and effectively. Their efforts clearly saved lives and avoided a far worse outcome."
(Copyright KUSA*TV, All Rights Reserved.)