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Thursday, January 17, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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British Airways Boeing 777 crash-lands in London, 19 hurt

The Associated Press

LONDON — A British Airways jet from Beijing carrying 152 people crash-landed Thursday, injuring 19 people and causing more than 200 flights to be canceled at Europe's busiest airport.

Investigators will speak to the pilots and study the plane's flight data recorder and maintenance records to determine what caused the crash-landing at Heathrow airport, tearing the plane's underbelly and damaging its wings.

Nothing suggested it was terror-related, Scotland Yard said.

Timothy Crowch, an aviation analyst with 35 years of experience as a commercial pilot, said the landing gear punched through both wings, indicating a "massive vertical impact." That suggests a total loss of engine power may have been the cause, he said.

Robert Cullemore of Aviation Economics, a London-based aviation consultancy, said the pilot kept the plane in the air long enough to prevent a disaster.

"If it had landed 200 meters (656 feet) shorter than it did, it may have hit perimeter fence and obviously some other buildings and the car park, clearly we would be dealing with fatalities and obvious damage," Cullemore said.

Fire trucks surrounded the Boeing 777 after it landed, spraying fire retardant foam around the aircraft. Two of the plane's giant wheel units were ripped from the craft during the landing and could be seen on grass near the runway.

Passenger Paul Venter said the trouble started as the aircraft was about to land.

"The wheels came out and went for touchdown, and the next moment we just dropped. I couldn't tell you how far," he said.

"I didn't speak to the pilot, but I saw him, and he looked very pale," Venter said.

The plane's wheels appeared to collapse as it came down in the grass in front of the airport's southern runway, witness John Rowland told the British Broadcasting Corp.

"It crashed into the runway, debris was flying everywhere, there was an enormous bang and it skidded sideways," he said.

Hillingdon Hospital said it was treating 13 injured, and six went to other hospitals. British Airways said one person suffered a broken leg.

The accident on one of Heathrow's two runways occurred just before a plane carrying British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a delegation of business leaders, including Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, was about to depart for China. The prime minister's plane was about a half mile away.

More than 200 flights were canceled — nearly a fifth of the day's flights, airport operator BAA said. Planes were able to take off and land on Heathrow's northern runway, air traffic control company Nats said. Some flights were diverted to other airports.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch was investigating, British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh told reporters, adding the airline didn't want to speculate on the cause. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also said it was sending a team of investigators to help.

It was the first accident involving the Boeing 777, a mainstay of many carriers' fleets, since the plane entered service in 1995, said Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier in Seattle.

The Boeing 777 was relatively new at six years old, Walsh said, adding the pilot was one of BA's most experienced having worked for the company for nearly 20 years.

Passenger Jerome Ensinck told the BBC that he at first thought the plane had made a hard landing.

"There was no indication that we were going to have a bad landing," he said. "When we hit the ground it was extremely rough."

"Then the emergency exits were opened and we were all told we should go through as quickly as possible, and the moment I was away from the plane I started to realize that the undercarriage was away, and we had missed the runway, Ensinck said.

"Now I realize I've had a close call," he said.

Kieran Daly, editor of the Air Transport Intelligence Web site, said the trouble seemed to occur in the flight's last few seconds.

"It's clear the pilot did not warn the passengers that anything was going to happen and there is no evidence he made any emergency call on radio," he said. "It is very strange."

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Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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