KINGSTON, Jamaica — Passengers on American Airlines Flight 331 had endured the crowded airports and delays of holiday travel and were moments from their Caribbean destination. Suddenly, everything seemed to spin out of control.
Touching down Tuesday night in fierce rain, the Boeing 737-800 slammed into the runway of Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport. The aircraft skidded to a halt at the edge of the sea, leaving battered and bruised passengers screaming in panic as the smell of jet fuel spread through the darkened cabin, which had cracked open in places.
"I just wanted to get the hell out of there, as far as I could, because I could smell the fumes, and I knew that if it blew, it could be a pretty big fireball," said Gary Wehrwein, 67, who was traveling with his wife, Pilar Abaurrea, from Keene, N.H.
All 154 people aboard survived, with 92 taken to hospitals and 13 admitted, but none of the injuries were considered to be life-threatening, said Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz. One woman had surgery for a broken nose and cuts on her face.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said 76 of the passengers were Americans.
The plane came to a stop on the sandy edge of an airport access road, and Transport Minister Mike Henry described it as a "Christmas miracle."
"If the plane was going faster, it would have gone into the sea," Henry said.
In daylight Wednesday, as soldiers stood around the wrecked jet, the damage was clear: The fuselage was cracked open, its left main landing gear had collapsed, and its nose was crushed and pointing off toward the sea.
The Washington Post reported that the National Transportation Safety Board has taken possession of the flight data recorders. Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said both devices will be brought back to U.S. labs to be decoded.
Flight 331 took off from Miami International Airport at 8:52 p.m. — about an hour late — and arrived at Norman Manley International Airport at 10:22 p.m. It originated at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
The jet had a crew of six and 148 passengers, many of them Jamaicans coming home for Christmas, officials said.
Passengers said the in-flight turbulence forced the crew to halt the beverage service three times before finally giving up. Before descending, the pilot warned of more turbulence but said it likely wouldn't be much worse.
Passenger Paul Williamson, visiting his native Jamaica from his home in Toronto, said he was frightened when he noticed the plane's wheels didn't seem to touch down right away. He said he crouched into a crash position in his seat near the front of the plane.
"Next thing I know, I hear a crashing sound, then the sound of twisting metal. It all happened so fast, but when the plane came to rest, that's when the screaming and the carrying on started," said Williamson, 37, an opera singer.
Williamson praised the flight crew for ably assisting the passengers. "It really could have been much, much worse," he said.