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On a Runway in Denver, a Nightmare and a Miracle


DENVER -- Gabriel Trejos isn't a nervous airplane passenger.

He enjoyed flying and had entertained thoughts of getting a pilot's license. So when he and his wife, Maria, settled into their seats in Row 19 on Continental Flight 1404, heading to Houston to spend Christmas with his father, he felt relaxed.

He hoisted his 13-month-old son, Elijah, onto his lap to point out the lights on the runway. "It was a good day to fly," Trejos recalled.

Minutes later, the plane gathered speed for takeoff. Then it hurtled off the runway, racing over snow and grass and sliding down a gully. Maria, pregnant, gripped her seat. The seats buckled, and Trejos braced his knees against them, fearing they would crush his son.

"It was the worst feeling in the world," said Trejos, 28, one of 115 aboard the Boeing 737 on Saturday evening at Denver International Airport.

The flight, Trejos said, began normally, although he heard an announcement about engine trouble as he boarded. But it didn't seem to him that much time was spent on the problem.

As the aircraft slid downhill, Trejos saw flames in the engine outside his window. Finally the plane stopped. The air grew smoky. "Get out of the plane," passengers yelled.

The firefighters of Station 31 were just sitting down to dinner when the red overhead alarm connecting them to Denver International Airport's control tower began flashing.

That means a plane in trouble -- engine problems perhaps, or stuck flaps -- and it goes off frequently enough that no one was nervous. Usually they climb into their rigs and wait at the side of the runway.

Trouble is rare: The airport, which opened in 1995, had had no serious incidents. The last crash in Denver had been in 1987, when a Continental flight crashed in bad weather at the previous airport, Stapleton, killing 28.

But this time, at 6:18 p.m. Saturday, a voice from the tower announced a crash on Runway 34-R.

"Did he just say what I thought he said?" asked firefighter Jason Cole.

From the four city fire stations spread around the 53-square-mile airport, firefighters stopped what they were doing. At Station 31, Randall Kemp abandoned plans for dinner. At Concourse A, where Cole and Capt. Mike Benton had been awaiting a passenger arriving with a medical problem, the two took off running.

Firefighters converged on the west airfield, searching in the darkness for any sign of a plane and spotting smoke and flashes of fire in a gully beyond the runway. As they approached, the plane smoldered, and flames shot up 20 feet.

In the cabin, passengers rushed for the exits, although to Trejos' disbelief, several people first tried to retrieve their luggage. He and his wife were sitting between two exits. When people thronged toward the rear exit, Trejos and his wife headed to the one in front. Trejos, with Elijah in his arms, climbed onto the icy wing of the plane, now resting on its belly, and dropped a short distance to the ground. His wife followed.

As the firefighters arrived, they saw passengers hiking toward them, some weeping, others eerily calm. Most shivered in their shirt sleeves in the single-digit temperatures; they'd left their coats behind. Those who had jackets offered them to Trejos to keep Elijah warm.

Several had head injuries and one flight attendant had a sprained ankle, but most were able to walk on their own, said Capt. Tom Gliver. In all, 38 were injured.

"It was surreal," said Bill Davis, an assistant fire chief and incident commander. He said firefighters train daily for such situations, but none of them had experienced it, at least not at Denver International. They knew what to do: One group attacks the fire, another assists injured passengers and another climbs inside the plane to search for survivors.

Cole, 37, clambered up the slide, which was slick with foam that other firefighters sprayed on the plane, and braced himself.

"I was expecting the worst," he said.

So was Benton, 55, who entered after Cole. "I took a little pause. I thought, 'This is going to be terrible.' "

It was black within. Cole, breathing through an oxygen tank, started down the aisle on his knees, groping with gloved hands for anything that felt human. Outside, firefighters aimed foam at the plane, and the spray blasted through the skin of the aircraft, dousing Cole in the face.

An obstacle blocked the aisle, so he started climbing over the seats, running his hands over cushions, patting luggage. What he feared most, he said, was that a child was unconscious under a seat.

Benton followed holding a thermal imager, a device that looks like a camcorder and detects body heat. He pointed it down each row. Nothing.

"I was overjoyed," he said later. "Not a soul was on that plane."

By Sunday, the National Transportation Safety Board had begun an investigation. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources close to the investigation, reported that the plane's brakes malfunctioned, causing the fuselage to buckle and sparking a fire.

At the station, the firefighters remained on duty, halfway through a 48-hour shift. They returned to the plane periodically, making sure the fire had not reignited. Coated with frozen foam, the aircraft had burned completely through on the right side.

"You can see right into the cabin," Kemp said. "It could have been horrible," Davis said. "It was a miracle."

"A Christmas miracle," Benton said.

Back in their home in the southern Colorado city of Pueblo West, the Trejoses scrapped their plans to spend Christmas in Houston.

"We just looked at each other and said, 'That's it. No more flying,' " Trejos said. "That was pretty bad. Every time I close my eyes, I see it."


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