JIM LEHRER: Now, the latest on the fiery ending of Air France Flight 358 from Paris to Toronto late today. The plane skidded off the runway and burst into flames. But airport authorities reported a short while ago the more than 300 passengers and crew were able to evacuate safely.
For more, we're joined by phone by Brendan Connor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Brendan Connor, welcome and thank you for being with us.
BRENDAN CONNOR: Jim, it's a pleasure, nice to talk to you.
JIM LEHRER: Let's start at the beginning. The plane landed about 4:00 your time, right? And it landed safely and then skidded off the runway, is that it?
BRENDAN CONNOR: Well, let me take you through this, Jim, because I know this has happened to you, I'm in the anchor chair here in our broadcast center, we're doing a story on King Fahd passing away, and suddenly my producer in my ear, there's been a plane crash at Pearson, let's go to live coverage.
So I was interviewing people for about an hour and a half, including a cameraman that we had sent out from our Toronto local affiliate to get some shots of the lightning storms and thunderstorms that were causing immeasurable delays and cancellations of flights, and he says, look, you know, while I was shooting these thunderstorms, and I shot a plane going off the end of the run way and bursting into flames and I've got to try to get this footage back to the building now.
But of course traffic jams, security cordons off, he get the footage back, now he is back and you're seeing some of John Finley's camera work. But anyway, what John told us was this was clearly a case where this plane skidded off the runway in wet, lightning and rain, not necessarily affected by the lightning strike itself, but it has skidded off the runway and then fallen into a ravine or a moat that is not far past the end of the runway.
And it's obviously there by strategic design, because 50 meters beyond that is Canada's busiest highway, and I'm talking a major, major eight-lane highway, and it's 4:00 in the afternoon, and the commute is on from downtown Toronto, city of 4 million, westward toward the suburbs, bedroom communities outside there. And it is very busy, and this plane comes to rest 50 meters from the highway.
JIM LEHRER: And that moat is designed to do exactly what it did this afternoon, right, it stopped a plane?
BRENDAN CONNOR: Exactly, so it goes nose down into this moat, all we could see for a time is the tail sticking up in the air, we're able to identify it by the Air France logo on the tail, and then a few minutes later it burst into flames.
But this is a good news story actually, Jim, because in that intervening time between the plane coming to rest and the flames bursting out, over 300 passengers and crew got out safely, some used the slide, some scrambled out the best way they could. Some got onto the highway and passing motorists picked them up to safety. Some people scrambled through the woods to the airport proper. But somehow miraculously, a crash of a plane, a big A-340 passenger jet from France coming in from Paris, and nobody dead.
JIM LEHRER: I know, miraculous is the right word to use. What is the, just give us a feel for how far is it from where that plane went down in the ravine and the major highway. We've seen the shot itself and we've seen the highway, and the cars and trucks and all of that. How far is it from the plane to the highway?
BRENDAN CONNOR: I'd just say it's got to be no more than about 50 meters. It's so close that one of the favorite pastimes of some aviation aficionados, there's an area where you with pull off that busy highway and some people actually on summer nights will go pull off there, pull out a blanket and some lawn chairs and sit down and watch the big planes come in and take off.
It's that close, you're looking at the under carriage of the plane flying right over. So had this not gone so into that moat, it would have skidded onto Canada's busiest highway and who knows what the casualties might have been.
JIM LEHRER: What is known in terms of details about how those passengers and crew got out? There were, as I understand it, 297 passengers and 12 crew members, right?
BRENDAN CONNOR: Right, and no deaths and only 14 minor injuries, injuries so minor, in fact, they were treated at the scene in a little triage set-up, everybody was taken downtown eventually to a medical center for precaution.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
BRENDAN CONNOR: But minor injuries, only 14 of them. And how the passengers got out, we talked to a couple of them here at the CBC, one guy on the phone said the lights went off and lost power, but he applauded the crew, saying they evacuated everybody in an orderly way, pulled out those slides.
And how many sitting on a plane when you're getting on a plane actually listen to that safety instruction all the time? But he said this is one of the reasons why you do, you know which exit is yours, and we just made for the closest one, and made it out quickly.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have any feel, Brendan, for the time that elapsed between, I mean the time between when the plane went down, and actually went into the ravine, and those explosions and the fireballs that followed, was it a matter of a few minutes or seconds or what?
BRENDAN CONNOR: Well, it had to be a few minutes, because as we've said and we've established, over 300 people got out in the intervening time. But they are awfully lucky because they got out between the time the plane stopped, nose down, some people must have been tossed around inside that plane, and they're clamoring out the side of the plane, and the plane's almost vertical or it's in a ditch basically nose down, and those people actually get out before the flames engulfed it. And believe me, we were looking at pictures from this traffic camera which is set across the highway, I'm sure you've seen that as well.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. We saw it all afternoon.
BRENDAN CONNOR: Flames were licking that fuselage by 10 after four, so it must have been only a matter of minutes and those people got out thereof and they're lucky. But we're all encouraged to hear that it's going to be a good news story.
JIM LEHRER: When, Brendan, as you and everybody else was looking, as we were here in the United States, we were looking at this live, this shot, this now famous shot from that stationary camera, and we saw the fireballs and we saw all the smoke, when did you realize that, when were you told that the passengers and the crew had escaped?
BRENDAN CONNOR: Not until about 6:00. So in the intervening time I'd say plane landing 4:03, we're starting to get stories coming back, we're starting to get eyewitness reports, you know, 4:15, 4:20.
So for a god hour and a half we were presuming there would be casualties given the pictures we were seeing and you were seeing, Jim. But then just before 6:00 there were a couple news reports out saying a police spokesman had said it appears everyone is safe and then Air France came out with a statement and said all our passengers and crew have made it out alive, and that was just like, you know, some applause going up in our newsroom here, I'll tell you that.
JIM LEHRER: You bet, and ours as well. We have a live shot now, Brendan, from that same camera, and the smoke now, of course, is now white and it's very much subdued compared to what it was earlier.
You say 14 people were injured and only minor injuries. Do you have any -- can you add any details to that?
BRENDAN CONNOR: No, nothing other than the fact that, as I say, they were so minor they were treated at the scene, maybe a sprained ankle from clamoring down a slide or something, but nobody is reporting any suggestion of any burns or head injuries or any kind of concussive injuries, mostly just minor injuries, and some shock and maybe some chill, because, you know, it was raining pretty hard and must not have been pleasant to get out into, but at least those people are out, I don't think they were feeling the cold.
JIM LEHRER: Give us a feel for how bad the weather was at this time, you said you had a cameraman out there doing a story on the weather itself, right?
BRENDAN CONNOR: Yes, just because there had been so many cancellations and flight diversions and so on from Pearson, our assignment desk thought it would be prudent to go out there and show people why some of their loved ones were going to be arriving late or be diverted, that sort of thing.
So we were just shooting that. And, you know, he recorded a couple of lightning strikes and nothing on any planes or anything, but, you know, the crack, the forks of lightning in the sky, and the blinding rainstorm, and we're seeing some of camera guy John Finley's pictures now, and much of it is taken of a blinding rainstorm.
So it was pretty bad, and I imagine that affected the landing gear, the skid time and the pilot's attempts to bring that thing to a stop before the end of the runway. But once again, thank goodness for that moat.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Have the authorities said anything about whether or not this plane was -- should not have landed, just to put it bluntly. I mean was this a mistake that somebody made, either in the control tower or the captain or something? Or have they gone that far yet?
BRENDAN CONNOR: No, I haven't heard anything like that, but I did hear that this was the last plane that was going to land and everything else was being diverted to Ottawa, which is a 45-minute flight away, the national capital here in Canada, and another big airport.
But this flight from Paris to Toronto was going to be the last one that was allowed in and everything else was going to be sent to Ottawa. So bad luck for the passengers on Air France, but in the end, as we've mentioned a couple of times, good luck.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, as you say, Brendan, a good news story with all the earmarks of just the opposite in every extraordinary way, but an extraordinary ending, and Brendan Connor, thank you -- of the CBC -- thank you very much for telling us this story tonight.
BRENDAN CONNOR: A pleasure, Jim, nice to talk to you.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Good to talk to you.