Amanda Ripley

Nav

← Back to Posts

A Plane Crash in Denver

22nd Dec 2008 posted in Disaster Behavior

The crash of the Continental Boeing 737 in Denver on Saturday was classic, if you can say that about a plane crash. It was a case study in how plane crashes actually happen—not how we imagine they happen.

We tend to assume that if your plane crashes, you’re doomed. The plane will plummet from the air in a terrifying free fall, and there is not a thing we can do but be very, very afraid. In fact, in most plane crashes, the accident happens during take off or landing (take off in this case) and the plane ends up on the ground and on fire. Then everything depends on the passengers and crew getting off quickly.

By all accounts, this was a hell of a fire. The survivors reported that overhead bins were liquifying in front of their eyes. But by the time the firefighters got on board, all the passengers were already gone. As Mike Benton of the Denver Fire Department told a local ABC reporter: “I took a little pause before went on plane and braced myself for what I was going to see. And I was overjoyed when walked in and there was nobody on the plane. It was like an abandoned plane.”

We don’t know yet what happened on board Continental flight, but there are early reports that the flight attendants blocked passengers from trying to exit on the side of the plane that was on fire and directed them to safer exit doors. Most flight attendants are now trained to shriek at passengers to “Get out! Get off the plane now!”—which tends to be very effective. There is also this report from a passenger who posted a string of messages to his Twitter account shortly after getting off the plane: “Whoever was on the left side exit row, God bless him, was johnny on the spot and instantly had the door open.” An excellent reminder that leg room is never free: People who sit in the exit row have a responsibility to pay attention to the safety briefing and to visually rehearse opening the door. It’s actually no small feat to get that thing open under stress.

As in most crashes, some passengers also slowed down the evacuation, according to early reports, by taking the time to try to get their overhead bags (a very common reaction that usually has more to do with how the brain works under stress and less to do with a craven desire to save one’s laptop). But in the end, all 110 passengers and crew members survived (58 people were injured).