It only took 18 minutes to evacuate the 379 passengers of Japan Airlines Flight 516 after their plane burst into flames just after touchdown at Tokyo’s Haneda airport Tuesday evening. A smaller coast guard Bombardier Dash-8 aircraft, preparing to take off to deliver urgent aid to quake-hit central Japan, was using the same runway when the two collided. The captain of the coast guard craft escaped with burns but his five crew members died.
The Associated Press collected accounts from officials and transcripts of traffic control communication. Here is a look at key moments leading to the collision.
Transcripts of the recorded communication, released by the transport ministry Wednesday, at 5:43 p.m., show airport traffic control and the JAL Airbus A350 establish communications four minutes before landing. Two minutes later, traffic control tells the JAL plane it’s allowed to land on the designated runway, 34R, with the pilot saying “cleared to land.”
Just 10 seconds later, the outgoing coast guard plane identifies itself, telling traffic control it’s on a taxiway to the runway. The traffic controller instructs it to “taxi to holding point C5” before the runway and says it gets No. 1 departure priority. The Bombardier repeats the instruction, then adds: “No. 1, thank you.”
The traffic controls make no further communication with either the JAL flight or the coast guard aircraft over the next two minutes until the crash, while communicating with two other flights.
NHK television airs footage from its monitoring camera set up at the Haneda airport showing the coast guard Bombardier moving from the C5 taxiway onto the runway, during the two-minute interval, and stopping there just before the collision.
LANDING AND COLLISION
At 5:47 p.m., about 40 seconds after the Bombardier is seen on the runway, the JAL flight touches down right behind coast guard aircraft and rams into it, creating an orange fireball against the night sky. The much smaller Bombardier is quickly engulfed in fire, while the A350 — covered in flames and spewing gray smoke — continues down the runway for about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) before coming to a stop, where fire engines and emergency workers scramble to put out the fire.
Emergency procedures in cabin are already in motion.
The JAL flight crew starts emergency response. The usual cabin announcement system malfunctions, according to JAL, and the crew is shouting into a megaphone to make sure all passengers hear their instructions.
Flight attendants repeatedly urge passengers to stay calm and to leave their belongings behind while making their way toward the closest of the only three usable emergency exits — two frontward ones and the third on the back — as the five others were deemed unsafe.
A survivor’s video shows smoke filling the cabin as people grow desperate. Some shout, “please let us out!” as children start crying. But many others remain calm and follow instructions to leave the burning plane on emergency chutes.
The captain ensures nobody is left behind in the cabin. He is the last one to leave the aircraft at 6:05 p.m., 18 minutes after touchdown.
Experts and media describe the 18-minute evacuation as “a miracle,” praising the JAL crew for their response.
The Haneda airport, one of the world’s busiest, reopens later Tuesday three other runways. But hundreds of flights have been canceled, including about 200 on Saturday, the last long weekend of Japan’s New Year holiday season.
At around 2:15 a.m. Wednesday, more than eight hours after the collision, the blaze is finally extinguished.
Aviation safety officials say they will inspect the A350 as part of their investigation to find out the cause of the collision, increasingly seen as human error with transcripts showing no clear takeoff approval was given to the coast guard plane.
By Friday, a team of six investigators from the Japan Transport Safety Board recovers flight data and voice recorders from the Bombardier and interviews three JAL pilots and nine cabin attendants.
JAL starts removing A350 debris from the runway to its hanger.
Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito says they plan to reopen the runway by Monday and that the airport’s traffic control operation is creating a new position among its team for monitoring aircraft movement on runways starting Saturday.
On Saturday, the JTSB experts recover voice data from the A350, crucial to the probe, and begin interviewing traffic controllers who were on call during the collision.