Officials: Engine disk failure caused Chicago plane fire

One piece of the disk was found in a UPS warehouse 2,920 feet south of the plane and another piece was found about 0.3 miles north of the plane on airport property


By Grace Wong
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A disk in an engine turbine on a Boeing 767 failed before the American Airlines plane caught fire Friday at O'Hare International Airport, with pieces flying through the roof of a UPS warehouse and elsewhere a third of a mile from the plane, officials said Saturday.

American Flight 383 to Miami caught fire as it was preparing to take off on Runway 28R at 2:35 p.m., resulting in an aborted takeoff and the evacuation of 161 passengers and nine crew members, according to authorities.

In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. (Jose Castillo via AP)
In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. (Jose Castillo via AP)

At least 20 people were taken to area hospitals for treatment of minor injuries related to escaping the plane on inflatable slide chutes, officials said. Those injured were released from hospitals Saturday, officials said.

Additional testing will be conducted to determine the exact cause of the plane fire, and the plane was moved from the runway to another location Saturday at O'Hare for further examination, officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday.

Examination of the engine revealed that the stage two disk of a high-pressure turbine failed, Lorenda Ward, a senior investigator for the NTSB, said in a news conference late Saturday afternoon at O'Hare.

The fire started when "as a result of the uncontrolled engine failure, a fuel pool fire erupted under the right wing," Ward said.

The danger of such a rare and serious failure is that engine pieces effectively become shrapnel — as happened Friday — and can cause extensive damage to the aircraft.

One piece of the disk was found in a UPS warehouse 2,920 feet south of the plane and another piece was found about 0.3 miles north of the plane on airport property. About 90 percent of the disk has been found.

The disk pieces will be sent to Washington, D.C., for testing, officials said. The right engine — the one involved in Friday's accident — was made by General Electric. It will be removed, sent to GE and dismantled. Maintenance records will be reviewed as part of the investigation, Ward said.

Fire damage to the airplane's fuselage was limited to windows and cosmetic interior. There was no fire in the interior cabin but there was smoke, Ward said.

The runway where the plane came to rest was still closed Saturday evening so the pavement could be cleaned and was scheduled to re-open at 7 a.m. Sunday, said Karen Pride, a city aviation department spokeswoman.

After the fire was discovered Friday, the plane's 161 passengers and nine crew members scrambled down emergency chutes on the left side of the plane while flames flared and thick black smoke billowed from the wing on the right side, according to the airline and video from the scene. 

Twenty people were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, mostly bruises and ankle problems, according to fire Chief Juan Hernandez, head of emergency medical services at the airport.

Video of the scene shows passengers sliding down chutes. Many of the passengers can be seen running across a median of grass, some lugging their bags. Some passengers gathered a distance away and watched as firetrucks circled the plane.

"Crazy, man," one passenger is heard saying. "I'm never f------ flying again." People around him can be heard laughing.

It took fire crews only a few minutes to control the fire and a few more minutes to extinguish it, officials said. As the smoke cleared, the blackened right wing could be seen sagging and touching the tarmac.

The FAA at first said it was believed the problem started with a blown tire, but American said the takeoff was aborted "due to an engine-related mechanical issue."

The turbine disk smashed through the roof of the UPS facility on the airport grounds and bounced off the floor, according to an airport worker. "It looks like a piece of a turbine disk from a jet engine," the worker said, adding it was too hot to touch.

Few people were inside the building at the time and no injuries were reported. The facility is filled with workers at night. Police secured the scene and turned it over to the NTSB, which was investigating the incident.

Copyright 2016 the Chicago Tribune

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