Majuro (Marshall Islands): Passengers were forced to swim for their lives Friday when an airliner ditched into a lagoon after missing the runway on a remote Pacific island and began sinking.
The Air Niugini Boeing 737-800 was attempting to land at Weno airport in Micronesia but ended up half submerged in Chuuk lagoon after the accident on Friday morning.
Within minutes, locals scrambled a flotilla of small boats to pluck the 35 passengers and 12 crew from the water.
The airline said the plane, which was involved in a collision with another aircraft earlier this year, had “landed short of the runway”.
Remarkably, it reported no serious injuries among those on the plane, which was making a scheduled stop on its way from the Micronesian capital Pohnpei to Port Moresby.
“Air Niugini can confirm that all on board were able to safely evacuate the aircraft,” the firm said in a brief statement.
“The airline is making all efforts to ensure the safety and immediate needs of our passengers and crew.” The airline did not detail what caused the accident, which occurred at about 9:30am (2330 GMT Thursday).
But it said it had been informed that “the weather was very poor with heavy rain and reduced visibility at the time of incident”.
Passenger Bill Jaynes, editor of the Pohnpei-based Kaselehlie Press newspaper said he did not even realise there had been an accident until he saw water gushing into the fuselage.
“It was surreal,” he told Bible Baptist Radio Chuuk shortly after being discharged from hospital with a gash on his forehead.
“I thought we landed hard until I looked over and saw a hole in the side of the plane and water coming in. I thought ‘this is not the way it’s supposed to happen’.” Jaynes praised the response of the locals.
“They immediately starting coming out in boats. They were awesome and I was really impressed,” he said.
A witness told the media the plane approached the airport “very low” before hitting the water.
The runway, like others in the north Pacific, is relatively short at 1,831 metres (6,006 feet).
It is surrounded on three sides by water. The Chuuk lagoon was a famous World War II battle site and dozens of Japanese vessels and planes are on the lagoon floor, now a tourist attraction for scuba divers.
It is not the first time a plane has overshot the runway in Micronesia.
In 2008, an Asia Pacific Airlines cargo Boeing 727 overran and ended up with its nose landing gear in the lagoon at the end of the Pohnpei airport runway.
Papua New Guinea’s Accident Investigation Commission (AIC) said it was preparing to send investigators to Weno.
“We’re trying to arrange a team to go there but I cannot give you any more information because I simply don’t have it,” a spokesman told AFP.
Air Niugini is Papua New Guinea’s national airline and lists only one 737-800 among its fleet of 21 aircraft on its official website.
According to registration details supplied by the airline, the plane was built in 2005 and had previously been owned by Air India Express and Mumbai-based Jet Airways.
The AIC website details an incident involving the aircraft in May this year when a Hercules operated by a freight company clipped the 737’s wing while taxiing, causing “significant damage”.
The website said the accident is still under investigation. (AFP)