GEORGETOWN, Guyana — Flight BW-523 from New York had just touched down and passengers were applauding the pilot's landing in the South American country Saturday when something suddenly went wrong.
The Boeing 737-800 slid off the end of a rainy runway, crashed through a chain-link fence and broke in half just short of a deep ravine. Yet all 163 people on board survived.
The plane came to rest off the end of the 7,400-foot runway at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, which sits on a ridge just south of the oceanfront capital of nearly 300,000 people. Authorities struggled at first to remove passengers without adequate field lights and other emergency equipment.
The plane stopped a little short of a 200-foot ravine that could have resulted in fatalities, said President Bharrat Jagdeo, who came to the site before dawn.
Officials were starting to investigate the cause of the crash even as they marveled at the lack of fatalities.
"We must be the luckiest country and luckiest set of people in the world to escape so lightly," said Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who said more than 30 people were taken to the hospital. Only three of those had to be admitted for a broken leg, bumps, cuts and bruises.
Caribbean Airlines Flight BW-523 left John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday evening and made a stop in Trinidad before landing in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
Local media reported that the overnight weather conditions were poor at Guyana's only international airport.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia recalled how applause at the arrival quickly "turned to screams."
"The plane sped up as if attempting to take off again. It is then that I smelled gas in the cabin and people started to shout and holler," she said. When the plane crumpled to a stop, Ramsingh said, she hopped onto the wing and then onto the dirt road outside the runway fence.
Nobody had yet showed up to rescue her, "but a taxi driver appeared from nowhere and charged me $20 to take me to the terminal. I had to pay, but in times of emergencies, you don't charge people for a ride," she said, sitting on a chair in the arrival area surrounded by relatives. She was returning to her native country for only the second time in 30 years.
Caribbean Airlines chairman George Nicholas told reporters that officials with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are scheduled to arrive today in Guyana to take over the investigation. He said investigators from Guyana and Trinidad, the airline's base, will help.