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Jet crashes in Toronto; all aboard survive

Up to 43 slightly hurt; weather seen focus of early investigation

TORONTO -- Just as Air France Flight 358 from Paris was about to touch down yesterday, the lights went off in the passenger cabin. Thunder roared and lightning cracked. Then the jetliner skidded off the rain-slicked runway, slid into a ravine, and broke into pieces.

The 309 people on board had only moments to escape before the aircraft burst into flames. Many passengers screamed; some panicked.

But everyone jumped to safety.

As many as 43 people suffered minor injuries in the crash, which happened in a thunderstorm at 4:03 p.m. yesterday. It was the first crash of an Airbus A340 in its 13 years of commercial service.

Gwen Dunlop, a Toronto resident who was returning from a vacation in France, said when the plane first touched down the passengers believed they had landed safely and clapped with relief.

''Only seconds later, it started really moving and obviously it wasn't OK," Dunlop said. ''At some point the wing was off. The oxygen masks never came down; the plane was filling up with smoke."

She said one of the flight attendants had tried to calm passengers and tell them that everything was fine.

''One of the hostesses said, 'You can calm down, it's OK,' and yet the plane was on fire and smoke was pouring in," Dunlop said. ''I don't like to criticize, but the staff did not seem helpful or prepared."

She said the pouring rain, lightning, and thunder added to the drama. ''We were just thrown into the weather," Dunlop said.

Roel Bramar, who was in the back of the plane, said he had used an escape chute to get out''We had a hell of a roller coaster coming down the ravine," Bramar told CNN.

Bramar and fellow passenger Olivier Dubois both said the power went off shortly before landing, perhaps after the plane was hit by lighting.

Dubois said that he had not expected a crash landing, and that there had been no warning from the captain.

''It was very, very fast," Dubois said. ''As soon as the plane stopped, they immediately opened the side of the plane where we couldn't see anything and they told us to jump."

The plane, carrying 297 passengers and 12 crew, overran the runway by 200 yards at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, said Steve Shaw, a vice president of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority.

The aircraft skidded down a slope into a wooded area next to one of Canada's busiest highways, and some survivors said that passengers scrambled up to the road to catch rides with passing cars.

Moments after the crash, a portion of the plane's wing could be seen jutting from the trees as smoke and flames poured from the middle of its broken fuselage.

A government transportation highway camera recorded the burning plane, and the footage was broadcast live on television in Canada and the United States.

Dubois said some passengers scrambled onto the nearby Highway 401, where cars stopped, picked them up, and took them to the airport. Two busloads of passengers were taken to an airport medical center.

Relatives and friends were taken to a hotel at the airport and asked to wait there until the passengers joined them. Several hours later, passengers in red blankets were taken on buses to the hotel, where families hugged.

While Shaw said there were 43 injured passengers, Air France said in a statement that 22 passengers had been treated for minor injuries.

An Airbus spokeswoman, Barbara Kracht, said the A340 had never crashed before in its 13 years of service.

Although it was too early to draw any conclusions about the accident, Chris Yates of Jane's Transport magazine said: ''We're probably talking about a weather-related issue here."

''You can never account for weather," Yates said. ''A thunderstorm can happen anywhere --it comes down to the judgment of the air traffic controller and the skill of the pilot to determine whether it's appropriate to land or to divert."

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