YANGON, Myanmar – Survivors of a Christmas Day crash-landing of an airliner in Myanmar told terrifying tales of escape Wednesday as carrier Air Bagan apologized for what it called the worst accident since it started flying in 2004.
Details of the crash remain unclear but airline officials told a news conference Wednesday they found the plane’s two black boxes and were investigating what went wrong.
So far officials have blamed heavy fog for the aircraft’s crash into a rice paddy where it burst into flames. Two died and 11 were injured, including four foreigners.
The Fokker 100 jet was 21 years old but passed inspections at annual renewals of its airworthiness certificate, the officials said. On Tuesday, it was carrying 71 people, including 48 foreigners, from Yangon via Mandalay to Heho airport, which is the gateway to the popular tourist destination Inle Lake.
“We felt the first bump, then a few big bumps and then (started) sliding very fast,” said 31-year-old Australian advertising executive Anna Bartsch.
Her boyfriend, Stuart Benson, described the landing like “a roller coaster” ride.
The plane came to a stop and they felt relief – then panic.
“In my window I saw the flames, and it was hot and we knew straight away we didn’t have much time to get out,” Bartsch said during an interview at a Yangon hotel where the airline lodged passengers after evacuating them from the scene.
Passengers rushed up the aisle to the front door, which was initially stuck shut, she said.
“We didn’t know then that the wings had come off,” Bartsch said.
The door was quickly forced open and passengers raced from the plane, some in shock and some suffering smoke inhalation, she said. Once on safe ground, Bartsch said she saw the pilot and co-pilot with bloodied faces and other people with serious burns.
“It’s amazing that the injuries were not more serious,” she said. “It could have been much worse.”
A flight attendant told reporters Wednesday that the crew realized something was wrong only when the plane hit the ground.
“We shouted, `This is an emergency’,” said flight attendant Khaing Su Naing, adding that despite one of the two doors initially getting stuck the crew evacuated the plane 90 seconds after it stopped moving.
The accident has raised concerns about the safety standards of Myanmar’s overburdened airlines, as foreign visitors have flocked to the Southeast Asian country, which is emerging from a half-century of military rule.
Air Bagan is one of a half-dozen private airlines that fly domestic routes in Myanmar. After one plane was destroyed in Tuesday’s crash, its fleet now consists of five planes, including four ATR turboprops and another Fokker 100, which is no longer made.
“We deeply apologize to all our passengers and to their family members,” the airline’s managing director, Htoo Thet Htwe, told the news conference. All passengers were paid $2,300, he said.
“This is the most serious accident Air Bagan has ever had,” he said.
In 2008, one of its planes overshot a provincial airport’s runway, spun out of control and crashed, causing the wings and tail to snap off. Many passengers were injured, but none died.
Air Bagan has said “the plane hit electrical cables about a mile from Heho airport as it descended and landed in rice fields.”
The Information Ministry said the pilot mistook a road near the airport for the runway before stopping in a nearby rice paddy. It was unclear whether the plane made its crash landing on the road or the rice field.
All fatalities were Myanmar citizens, including a man riding a motorcycle where the plane came down and a tour guide aboard the plane. There were earlier reports of an 11-year-old child also among the dead.
Jocelyn Gecker of the Associated Press in Bangkok contributed to this report.