Aviation Final Approach

What happens when a speeding Boeing 737 meets one of the shortest runways in the nation? Welcome aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1455

Right before the explosion of sheet metal and sound he thought, Okay, this thing is going to split in half. Beside him, Debbie was thinking, This plane is going to cartwheel—how do you disengage a seat belt when you’re hanging upside down?

Carlos was ringing up a purchase in the glass booth when he heard the pitched complaint of 1455’s twin 22,000-pound General Electric engines and looked out to see some fellow across the street walking the sidewalk next to the blast fence. Next thing he knows, the guy’s running, his customer is running, one of the Prime Time drivers is running, and 1455 explodes through the blast barrier, its thrumming turbines inhaling fence, making a sparking metal mulch and spitting out fiery showers as it careers at Carlos and the gas pumps.

Immolation. Heaven and hell. The body reduced to gristle and bone. Carlos slammed his palm over the pumps’ shutoff valve button.

Next door, Eric Miranda was in the parking garage directing traffic when he heard the driver he had just sent out over the radio—”Uh, Eric, I think there’s a plane on Hollywood Way.” He turned around and saw a blue Taurus driving north just as 1455 plowed across the street.

From inside 1455, the exploding blast fence had a sound, a sticking-your-head-inside-a-tornado sound, but once the plane was on the other side, Kevin suddenly felt a quiet moment of relief—the jet was in one piece. But it was still moving. He looked out the window then, and there it was—the red, white and blue Chevron sign sailing toward him in the night air. Lit up, it looked like a national advertisement for death. Kevin swam in his seat, his mind filled with terse teleprompter messages like “Those are gas pumps,” and “Fuel on jet,” and “Fireball.” The plane’s front landing gear had been knocked out by a two-foot cement wall, and the jet was now shoveling its way nose-first across the street, ferrying 142 occupants and 5,000 pounds of Jet A fuel into the station’s pumping area.

Ten seconds ago—was it that long?—Abayomi had been in the middle of a conversation with the driver in the other van at the Chevron, trying to convince him of something. Now he was suddenly alone, facing forward out his van’s windshield, gripping the steering wheel with two hands, a high-pitched “Whoooooo” escaping from the top of his throat as the nose of the 108,000-pound 737 suddenly bore down on the approximate location of his sternum.

At Burbank FD headquarters, Tracy Pansini heard an Alert Three come over the P.A. system, signaling an aviation accident. Nearby, a computer fed out the description: A 737 had crashed onto Runway 8 and was in flames on the tarmac. If anything, Pansini thought, the passengers are going to die from smoke inhalation. Next thing he knows, he’s speeding down Orange Grove, leading six firetrucks toward the airport, and a second report comes over the radio. Now the jet is supposedly on Hollywood Way, still on fire.

And then 1455 JUST stopped, its nose sitting atop a crushed blue Taurus 40 feet from the Chevron, halted by a puny two-foot retaining wall that didn’t exist on any safety designer’s radar. Inside the cabin, Kevin looked at Debbie, thought, Made it, and for the first time relaxed his legs.

That’s when the ceiling tiles started dropping around the McCoys, along with the duck-yellow air masks and most of the overhead baggage, and at about this moment Kevin notices two things more or less at once: One, he can smell smoke, and two, one of the inflatable silver escape chutes, the means off the disabled plane, has inflated into the cabin, blocking the exit.

On the ground, Abayomi steps into the street before the ruined aircraft. A moment earlier, smoke from the crash had been so thick he couldn’t make out the numbers on his cell phone for a 911 call. It’s even stranger now—there’s no one on the street, not a car in sight, just Abayomi and a downed 737 together on a Sunday evening. And then one of the plane’s overwing exits opens, and a passenger takes a tentative step onto the craft’s shell. In a minute Abayomi is under the wing, smelling jet fuel, reaching up for the man above him, saying, “Hey, use me as a ladder.”

The first of about 30 passengers scrambles off the wing and shimmies down the shuttle driver’s body.

Eric Miranda can see a blood-spattered head wedged into a spiderweb break in the cockpit’s windshield. There’s a smell of jet fuel everywhere, and passengers are starting to drop from the plane’s wings, fluttering presences in the dusk air. Inside the Taurus a woman and her daughter—well, they have a phrase for this, white as a sheet. Just before impact, the Taurus had made a right-hand swerve to avoid collision yet was unable to clear the path of the skidding plane, the Ford’s front end now crushed under its fuselage.

Miranda leads its solemn though uninjured occupants away like subjects of some biblical oil painting, back toward the sheltered garage.

Two guys run into the Chevron convenience store, passengers just off the plane. “Where are your throwaway cameras?” they ask Carlos, and he points. They buy every one he has.

An hour ago the flight attendant in the purple Izod standing in front of Kevin had been cracking jokes over the intercom. Now she was bellowing into a bullhorn, informing the imbeciles at the back of the plane who were gathering their laptops to Get. In. The. Chute. He could still smell acrid smoke coming from somewhere—an electrical fire?—and passing an open door that led onto the wing, he decided to forgo the exit. There was fuel dripping from those wings. Then it was his turn, and he dropped through the chute, finding himself suddenly on the sidewalk, on the ground, next to Debbie. He reached for his cell.

It was obvious that 1455 was not on fire when Chief Pansini finally arrived at the scene. Had it been, there is a good chance its occupants would have perished from smoke inhalation before BFD could reach them, if only because the main exit at the front of the plane was blocked by the inward-inflating chute. There were a total of 13 responding vehicles now bathing Hollywood Way in a crescent glow, the silhouette form of the jet canted into the March night. From here on out it would be procedure: safely gather the passengers at a distance from the accident, instruct the kid in the Chevron to shut down the gas station’s electricity to avoid a spark, order the crash rigs to lay down foam on the fuel spill.

At least three planes before 1455 have also failed to break the chain of mishap. Each ended up exploding through the airport’s perimeter fence and onto Hollywood Way, making Runway 8 one of the most overrun runways in the country, a runway that also happens to have a gas station situated at its terminus. Since the accident, the Burbank Airport has focused on the issue of relocating its terminal, sometimes citing safety reasons. It has not offered plans to make Runway 8 safer.

Yet while a landing plane has never crashed into the airport’s terminal, the odds are, if four planes have overrun Runway 8 in the past, planes will continue to end up on Hollywood Way or beyond, possibly with more disastrous results.

More than anyone, Pansini, a firefighter, knows how such a catastrophe would manifest itself. He looked into the gaping hole left in the blast fence by 1455, out onto Runway 8 and into the western sky. It was dark now, but the sun was setting later every day—a couple of months until summer and he’d be surfing with his kids up in Carpinteria. In the March air he could smell the jet fuel that dripped from the plane’s wings, now vanishing beneath a blanket of foam.

It was cold out, thankfully. Pansini was fully aware of the properties of Jet A fuel. Its flash point was relatively low, 110 degrees, and so if this had to happen, a night like this was about the best you could hope for. Because if this had been a hot summer day …

Pansini turned and went back to his command.

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