August 2, 2018 / 7:19 AM / in 12 days

Reflexes, solidarity help passengers to flee burning Mexico plane

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Shortly after boarding her flight in the northern Mexican state of Durango on Tuesday afternoon, Ashley Garcia had a premonition that something was wrong.

Firefighters douse a fire as smoke billows above the site where an Aeromexico-operated Embraer passenger jet crashed in Mexico's northern state of Durango, July 31, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Proteccion Civil Durango/via REUTERS

The 17-year-old high school student from Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, was one of 65 U.S. citizens among the 103 passengers and crew aboard the Aeromexico passenger jet that crashed near the runway shortly after take-off.

Settling into her seat, Garcia saw a storm was gathering fast in the distance, and by the time the aircraft began preparing for takeoff it was battered by strong winds, hail and rain. Garcia captured the scene through her window with her cellphone.

“I had a gut feeling: just record it, just record it,” she said. “I was like, there’s no way we are taking off, it’s too risky.”

The flight crashed moments after taking off, skidding to a halt in scrubland near the runway, a wing in flames.

But within minutes, passengers followed emergency protocol, acting fast and helping each other along the way, to escape without fatalities.

“Today more people survive plane crashes than die,” said Anthony Brickhouse, an air safety expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator.

The elements that can be crucial in preventing deaths - including the aircraft’s condition after crashing and the environment where the accident occurred - were largely favourable for the Aeromexico flight, Brickhouse said.

Investigators found the Embraer passenger jet’s recorders on Wednesday and have still to determine the cause of the crash. Aeromexico said 64 people have been released from hospitals. Two people, including the pilot, were more seriously injured.

Garcia was returning to the United States with three cousins after a two-week trip to visit relatives, travelling from Durango to Mexico City to catch a connecting flight to Chicago.

Liliana Gallarzo, Garcia’s cousin, thought the bumpy take-off was turbulence until the aircraft began skidding and panic set in.

“We were screaming,” said Gallarzo, a 19-year-old college student from Chicago.

Despite the panicked scramble to flee, passengers showed compassion.

“Everybody was grabbing people, helping them,” Gallarzo said. “I was like, we gotta go, I was making sure we were all there, saying, ‘Just keep walking, keep walking, walk as fast as you can.’”

Filing behind fellow travellers, they made their way toward the rear as the aircraft filled with black smoke, unable to take the emergency exits at the middle of the plane near the smouldering wing.

Garcia grabbed her phone but left her luggage behind, losing her glasses in the shuffle.

When they reached the exit, there were no emergency slides, meaning they had to jump, Garcia said. A trampoline was there to cushion their fall, and fellow passengers helped them make the jump.

Once off the plane, Garcia coughed and vomited, choking for air. A flight attendant directed the cousins to get as far away as possible from the plane, which was soon engulfed by the fire, leaving only smouldering wreckage after firefighters extinguished the blaze. They walked through the rain, their clothes soaked.

After waiting for further direction, they headed closer to the runway, where firefighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel sprang into action, checking passengers for injuries.

Gallarzo said she wound up with soreness on her neck and back, bruises and some cuts.

Garcia, also suffering from scratches and bruises, was taken to the hospital, where she underwent X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before returning home that night.

She said the compassion shown to her by emergency personnel affirmed her desire to be a police officer. She has a flight home booked for Friday.

“I didn’t think I would be able to get back on a flight, but I have experienced the worst,” Garcia said. “So now whatever happens, it’s meant to happen.”

Reporting by Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alistair Bell

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