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"Fight or flight' tramples airlines

Published Jun. 20, 2004
Updated Aug. 28, 2005

His eyes were closed. Delta's 7 a.m. flight to Atlanta pulled away from Gate 72. The prerecorded safety message aired on video screens. Then, suddenly, the routine shattered when Norris Johnson heard the first passenger yell, "Fire!"

Johnson jumped up, saw a red-orange glow toward the front of the cabin and thought of Richard Reid, the al-Qaida follower who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet with explosives hidden in his shoes. His gut reaction: "I've got to get off this plane."

"I thought it was something someone brought on the plane that ignited prematurely," Johnson later recalled.

All but 12 of the 169 passengers bailed out of the Boeing 757 jet at Tampa International Airport last June 23 in an evacuation that the crew did not order and that Delta Air Lines says was an overreaction to a harmless engine fire. Within minutes, 33 were injured, most from falling off emergency slides. The National Transportation Safety Board still is investigating.

Delta and aviation safety experts say the evacuation was sparked by a new mind-set in the passenger cabin that took hold after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Once-passive travelers are more likely to take action when they sense danger, the experts say. Much has been made of passengers fighting back against terrorists, like Todd Beamer and other passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 and those who helped flight attendants overpower Reid.

The flip side, however, is passengers are more likely to evacuate without instructions from crew members or even against their orders, says Capt. Bill Jones, safety chairman for Delta's pilots union. With a nod to Beamer, he has coined a term for it: the Let's Roll Effect.

"There's a change in the attitudes of a percentage of passengers about wanting to be in control of uncomfortable situations," Jones says. "It's understandable but misapplied -- "I'm not going to be a victim. I'm outta here.' "

Such "passenger-initiated" evacuations have historically been rare, occuring perhaps once every few years, says Nora Marshall, chief of the survival factors division of the NTSB.

No federal agency keeps comprehensive statistics on all commercial aircraft evacuations, much less the number of those started by passengers. "Airlines have good data," Marshall says. "But it's not public data."

Delta, however, acknowledges having two such evacuations -- the Tampa accident and one in Atlanta -- along with a close call in Salt Lake City during the last seven months of 2003.

The airline averaged about two evacuations of any kind annually since 1995, said Capt. Lawrence A. "Bud" Sittig, director of inflight safety for Delta. Last year's incidents prompted Delta to expand and reinforce guidance on how air crews handle evacuations started by passengers.

Delta told flight attendants to watch the cabin more closely as planes push back and to contact the captain immediately if passengers move toward exits, he said. Pilots were instructed to quickly tell people to stay seated once they determine the aircraft is safe.

"We've reinforced after the Tampa incident to take command, be very aggressive and assertive if the crew does not feel an evacuation is warranted," Sittig said.

Safety officials at airlines know about the take-charge attitude of passengers and the potential for more evacuations started by passengers, Sittig said.

"Everybody's trying to manage these challenges the same way," he said. "It's a reality across the industry."

Passengers push forward

Passengers napped, read or watched the prerecorded safety message as pilots readied the 757's engines for the trip to Atlanta. Delta Flight 1036 sat on the apron near the gate.

The left engine started without a hitch. Joni Eady of Lakeland glanced up from her safety information card and noticed white smoke coming out of the right engine. She checked the other side, looked back at the right engine and saw short, orange-yellow flames shooting out.

"The flames got bigger as I was watching them, more than a second or two," Eady said. "It didn't look like it was going away. I was just interested in getting off (the plane)."

What passengers saw, Delta says, was a "tail pipe fire," caused when residual fuel puddled in the bottom of the engine is ignited. It creates spectacular flames but doesn't damage the engine or threaten anyone inside the plane, aviation experts say.

That message didn't reach people in the coach cabin. As flames rose above the wing, perhaps as high as the top of the plane, Celeste Salgado of Tampa and two other passengers seated just behind the right wing jumped up and yelled, "Fire!"

"I thought fire and smoke were going to get into the cabin, and I was going to be asphyxiated," said Salgado, who was flying to Knoxville for a business meeting. "The guy next to me put his hand on the window and said, "This is really hot.' "

Flight attendant Nancy Snyder, preparing drinks in the narrow galley in front of the coach cabin, heard what sounded like chanting or singing. She looked back and saw passengers rushing toward her to reach the galley exit doors.

When she heard passengers yelling, "Fire!" she thought, "Oh my God, it's a bomb," she said in a training video produced by Delta about the accident. "I was thinking half of the plane must be going because everyone had gone (toward) me. Everyone was panicking. I was right at the door trying to stop people from jumping because I could hear the engines (running), and they were determined to go."

A man pushed Snyder aside and grabbed the handle of the left exit door. He opened it and jumped onto the evacuation slide, states a preliminary safety board report. In the video, Snyder says she opened the door and tried to supervise an orderly evacuation.

"I could see that wasn't happening," Snyder said. "Two people were jumping out at a time. . . . My commands didn't matter -- "One at a time,' and "Help people out.' People had already jumped out the wing exits, even the exits where the fire was coming from."

Most passengers headed for exit doors near the plane's tail. One woman climbed over seats because the aisle was jammed with people. A man yelled at a passenger retrieving his bag from an overhead bin to "get off the plane" and slammed the door on his fingers when he didn't move fast enough, Salgado said.

Two flight attendants in the back were quickly overwhelmed with passengers rushing at them in a panic, Delta said in the training video.

Some passengers, however, said there was bumping and shoving but nothing like the mass hysteria Delta described.

"Two flight attendants in the back were remarkably calm, yelling for people to get off the plane," said Steve Collins, a vascular surgeon from St. Petersburg traveling with his teenage son, Paul. "There was obviously jostling. . . . That's what you do in a plane full of people."

Getting out the back of the plane turned out to be anything but routine. The 757's left engine was still running as passengers began to go down the inflatable evacuation slides. Passengers told the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa International police that the left rear slide was twisted and may not have fully inflated.

One of the first to jump down was Paul Collins, then 16, who was headed to Norfolk, Va., to start a college tour of Virginia and North Carolina with his father. The left slide was "misshaped" and his son fell to the ground, breaking his wrist, Collins said.

Miguel Cordero was pitched off the slide halfway down. The engine blast "blew me down on all fours," said Cordero, a former Eastern Airlines flight attendant. His suit jacket blew off and his elbows, knees and palms were scraped as if he had fallen off a bicycle, he said.

"Our slide went straight down -- more of a jump-and-hope," Johnson said. "The first three or four people hit the concrete. They were blown back behind the plane. It rolled them over like tumbleweeds."

In all, 33 passengers were injured, six seriously enough for ambulances to take them to St. Joseph's Hospital. They included Paul Collins and Michael Mueller, 56, of Tampa, who slipped off of a wing and fell about 20 feet onto his side.

Crews in control

The same day as the Tampa accident, the crew of a Delta 737 in Salt Lake City faced a strikingly similar situation.

One of the jet's engines failed to start on the first attempt. Pilots asked the ground crew to watch as they tried again. Workers on the ramps reported flames coming out the back of the engine, and the pilots recognized it as a tail pipe fire.

They immediately called a flight attendant. Jumpy passengers already were moving out of their seats but froze when she ordered them to sit back down, Sittig said. "She stopped it with a strong and assertive command with people standing in the aisle," he said.

Just over five months later Delta had an evacuation started by a passenger at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Hot exhaust from an onboard power generator blew into the passenger cabin of a 757 stopped near a gate on Dec. 2.

Two passengers opened over-wing exit doors and "multiple people" scrambled onto the two wings, said Delta spokesman Anthony Black. Flight attendants regained control and directed an evacuation. None of the 178 passengers or six crew members was injured.

They were lucky. Even in a well-supervised evacuation, people frequently get hurt jostling to get out of a large plane and down the slides, said John Cox, a U.S. Airways captain and safety chairman for the Air Lines Pilots Association.

The danger is particularly acute, he said, when passengers start an evacuation before pilots can secure the aircraft, he said.

"If the plane is taxiing, we could run people over," Cox said. "Jet engines could knock people over or burn them. The panels on the wing move up and down with . . . great force, and feet could get sheared off."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the airline industry has begun to recognize an attitude of "self-empowerment" among air travelers, he said. For example, more passengers challenge his explanation when a mechanical problem delays their flight, the pilot said.

"I'll tell them maintenance is working on it, and they'll say, "Don't lie to me,' " he said. "It's a higher level of suspicion that crews aren't telling them the truth."

The threat of terrorism always has travelers on edge. First-class passengers on Delta 1036 who heard the "bang" of an evacuation slide deploying thought it was a "terrorist situation," the airline said.

Behind the door

Why the pilots did not stop the evacuation by making an announcement that the fire wasn't an emergency is a question some Delta 1036 passengers later asked. And why, they wondered, didn't the pilots shut down the engines before people started going down the slides?

Passengers already were on the ground before the pilots were aware of trouble in the cabin.

From the 757 cockpit, pilots can't see the engines. Sensors alert pilots to excessive heat in the combustion chamber, where air and fuel burn to turn the jet turbines. But they get no indication of a tail pipe fire, any more than a car tells you when your exhaust backfires.

Tampa ground crew members saw the fire. But they already had disconnected headsets to talk to the pilots and had to use hand signals. The pilots didn't see the signals right away, Delta says. They realized an evacuation was under way only when they saw cockpit lights indicating exit doors were open and passengers were on the ramp.

A flight attendant in first class then called to report a "possible cabin fire," the first communication pilots had with anyone inside the plane, Delta says. The pilots didn't hear any commotion behind them because of a post-Sept. 11 safety enhancement: the reinforced cockpit door.

Delta pilots used to keep the cockpit door open until takeoff, said Sittig, the inflight safety director. Since the federal government now requires crews to secure the door just before the plane moves back from the gate, phones connecting the cabin to the cockpit are the only way flight attendants and pilots communicate quickly.

"The ability to grab the interphone is very important if anything's going on in the cabin," Sittig said. "We found this to be a complicating factor with the Tampa event."

Cordero, the former Eastern flight attendant, blamed the Delta cabin crew for not taking charge and stopping the evacuation. Before leaving the airport that day, he filed a written complaint with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

"Never once did a flight attendant get on the (public address) system," he said later in an interview. "I never heard a word. Instead of trying to take control, they just panicked."

Other passengers said the situation spun out of control too quickly. "The problem is there was no time for someone to come over the intercom and say, "Don't worry,' " Steve Collins said. "That would have made a difference."

The reaction of passengers on Flight 1036 was perfectly normal, Salgado said. "We did what we could do because the plane was on the ground and we had some control at that stage. In the absence of direction, people will respond in a survival mentality."

The NTSB expects to complete its investigation this summer.

Delta concluded its employees reacted appropriately. "However, it was also determined that constant vigilance by air crews may prevent a similar occurance," said Jason Ragogna, a Delta safety investigator who narrated the training video.

From now on, passenger Salga%% WARNING %%do is taking the advice of a frequent-flier friend to pick a seat where she can't see or hear the engines.

"I'm not sitting on the wing," she said. "I'm sitting more toward the front now. That experience left me a little shell-shocked."

_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

When passengers take control

On June 23, 2003, as Delta Flight 1036 was leaving its gate with 169 passengers and six crew members, a tail pipe fire in the right engine caused chaos in the cabin. Without orders from the flight crew, passengers evacuated through eight emergency exits of the Boeing 757-232 jet. Thirty-three passengers were injured, two seriously. Delta says evacuation was unwarranted. Although the sequence of events is uncertain, this graphic gives a view of what happened from various areas of the aircraft.

1. At departure, the aircraft is pushed back turning left at a 45-degree angle.

2. The left engine starts with no problem. The ground crew disconnects their headsets start walking back to the gate.

3. As the right engine was being started, ground crew members notice flames shooting out. They give hand signals to the cockpit crew, but the pilots don't immediately see them. When the pilots look up from the flight instruments, they see the hand signals and shut down the right engine.

Cockpit

Pilots see passengers on the ramp and a light indicating doors are open. They shut down left engine. A flight attendant in first class calls the captain about a "possible cabin fire." The captain makes an announcement for passengers to stay on the aircraft and remain seated.

The inflatable ramps are gray, but have been colored yellow for clarity.

Front of coach cabin

Working in the midcabin galley, flight attendant Nancy Snyder hears a commotion and looks to see passengers heading toward the galley emergency exits. The first passenger pushes her aside and grabs the exit handle. One of them opens the door.

Against her directions, people jump out in groups, some carrying bags. She opens the right galley exit after ensuring the fire is out and the right engine is off.

Rear of coach cabin

A flight attendant seated in 45D hears passengers yelling "Fire" and sees an orange glow in the cabin. She joins another flight attendant in the rear galley, and they are quickly overwhelmed with passengers rushing to the rear emergency exits.

The left engine is running as passengers start jumping onto the left evacuation slide. The slide is twisted and may not be fully inflated, say passengers and a Tampa Fire-Rescue report. Teh first people out bounce off the slide onto the concrete ramp. Some are knocked down by the jet blast.

How tail pipe fires start

1. External air is blown into the engine to turn the starter motor that turns the turbine. When the turbines reach a certain speed, then fuel is introduced as well as the spark from the igniter.

2. Tail pipe fires result from excess fuel trapped at the bottom of the combustion chamber. This might be caused by the igniter firing too late or failing to light. Excess fuel may also be present from previous engine shutdown.

3. When this excess fuel ignites, it results in a large flame that blows out of the exhaust opening. The flame does not harm the engine and can last several seconds.

For a 3-D interactive view of the plane, go to www.sptimes.com/links

Sources: Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Delta Air Lines, NTSB preliminary report and passenger interviews.