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Passengers of Lauderdale-bound flight tell of 'scary' plane accident

Air Transportation DisastersTransportation DisastersAir Transportation IndustryUS AirwaysUniversal OrlandoFort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport

As federal authorities investigate the hard landing of a US Airways jet in Philadelphia that was supposed to fly to Fort Lauderdale, some of the 149 passengers who evacuated the flight described their frightening experiences Friday.

From a window seat over the wings, Belgian firefighter Peter Frederickx said a few seconds after takeoff, the aircraft "smashed into the runway again, two or three times."

Philadelphia dentist Dennis Fee was sitting in first class and remembered flight attendants' warnings to "keep your head down."

Health-care consultant Christopher Teaney called it a "frightful, scary" experience.

"You realize you have zero control of your life in moments like this," said Teaney, 33, of Fort Lauderdale.

The accident happened about 6:25 p.m. Thursday, when Flight 1702 experienced a blown tire and collapse of the nose gear, and the takeoff was "safely aborted," US Airways said. Two passengers were evaluated at a local hospital and released, the airline said.

Passengers eventually were put on another plane that landed in Fort Lauderdale about 2:30 a.m. Friday.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator was in Philadelphia to assess damage to the aircraft, and the cockpit voice recorder and flight-data recorder were being brought to its Washington, D.C., headquarters, a spokesman said.

Citing the early stages of the investigation, airline and government officials aren't saying whether the plane left the ground before the nose collapse, but passengers said it did.

Frederickx, 36, said that as the plane tried to stop, "there was no announcement. We heard some screaming, then all of a sudden, all becomes very quiet. Everyone is in a little shock. Then after a few seconds, [the screaming] starts again."

He is traveling with the Belgian Fire Observers, which sponsors training tours abroad for professional and volunteer firefighters. He was one of 14 responders from Belgium and the Netherlands who were seated about the cabin.

He said he saw white smoke coming from the engine on his side of the plane, but no flames.

"It smelled like burnt rubber," he said. "As a firefighter, we know how to read some smoke and we knew there was no danger for fire at that moment."

Fee, 47, said he also saw the smoke and smelled burning rubber.

"It was very noisy, there were kids behind us, 7 or 8 years old, with their parents," Fee said. "And they were crying. After we got to a complete stop, the kids were saying, 'I don't want to go to Miami!'"

The pilot ordered an evacuation.

Eric Kofler, 42, also from Belgium, said in an effort to quell the panic they told passengers, "'We are firefighters, we can help.' Some guy said, 'Ladies and children first,' but everybody got up, and they can't get out at first."

Frederickx said, "We tried to calm them down, [told them] it was normal emergency procedure and they would open the gates in a few seconds."

Emergency chutes were extended from both sides of the plane's cabin.

"The stewardesses opened the doors, and they told us to just jump," Fee said.

The plane's nose was tipped down, the firefighters said.

"We waited outside the plane to help them get down the slides," Frederickx said."The aft slides were very steep because the tail was in the air.

He said his colleagues helped move passengers to a safe spot in the grass and with the crew, inquired how they were feeling.

The firefighters said they encouraged people to herd together because they were without coats in the night air.

Firefighter Neil Price, 52, of the Netherlands, said, "We started to do triage to see if people were hurt or not. Two or three were complaining about chest pains. It was just [from] panic."

Fee found his friends on the field outside the aircraft and waited for the fire trucks, which arrived "in less than five minutes," he said.

"I saw mostly the good side of human nature," Fee said. "Everyone was huddling together to try and get warm, lending phones to others so they could make calls to family members, and taking photos."

Amid the fear and discomfort, passengers documented the experience with pictures and videos that were quickly filed to Twitter and Facebook.

Fee called the experience "surreal, as if it happened to someone else. You never expect to have to be in a plane crash or have to go down that slide."

A frequent flier, he said, "[While getting on another plane] I was maybe questioning my sanity a little bit."

But the welcome to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where his partner was waiting for him, was worth it.

"I got a pretty big hug when he picked us up," Fee said.

Teaney said he was going to celebrate by attending the Miami Heat game on Friday night, and was happy he came out of the experience in good shape so that he can be married next month.

He said the flight crew and attendants "did a great job."

For the firefighters, the incident proved to be very authentic emergency training.

"It was a little bit too real," said Frederickx. "And I hope it's my last one, too. We were very lucky. If we fell from a bigger height, I'm pretty sure we'd have had a disaster over there."

The Belgian Fire Observers became friends with firefighters in South Florida during past training trips. They'll march Saturday in Delray Beach's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Next week, they'll continue on to Universal Orlando Resort and to see St. Augustine. At month's end, they'll train with firefighters in Atlanta.

"I think people will buy us beers, and I need it, I must be honest," Frederickx said.

Carl Verstrepen, 35, who coordinated the trip to America and watched events unfold from Delray Beach, said their phones haven't stopped ringing because their families, friends and reporters have wanted to talk with them.

Verstrepen said he was "very proud" of his friends and colleagues.

"It was a lesson in being prepared," Verstrepen said. "We're firefighters. This is what we do, even on holiday."

Kofler said that though their experience was the "hot item" on TV at home in Belgium, he hopes it calms down before they return. He said he and his fellow firefighters aren't heroes.

"No, no, no," Kofler said. "I think everybody on the plane tried to do the same thing. You do what you have to do, I think."

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report. Ltrischitta@Tribune.com, 954-356-4233 or Twitter @LindaTrischitta

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Air Transportation DisastersTransportation DisastersAir Transportation IndustryUS AirwaysUniversal OrlandoFort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport
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