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Plane catches fire at O’Hare: ‘big, red ball of flames’ — 20 hurt

In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at O'Hare International Airport in October 2016. Pilots on Flight 383 bound for Miami reported an engine-related mechanical issue, according to an airline spokeswoman. | Jose Castillo/Distributed by the Associated Press

Everything happened so quickly, there wasn’t even an announcement aboard the packed jet.

Then, passengers saw the flames. And the panic set in.

“People were just rushing out of the plane,” said Hector Cardenas, who’d been seated in the seventh row and captured the chaos on video. “People were just throwing themselves onto each other, pushing each other through the door and just throwing themselves out on the slides.”

But as terrifying as Flight 383 was for Cardenas and the other 170 passengers and crew members, it could have been much worse.

The Miami-bound American Airlines flight caught fire before takeoff Friday afternoon — spewing huge billows of black smoke across O’Hare Airport — but passengers and crew were able to escape the Boeing 767 on chutes, officials said. About 20 people were injured, with none of those injuries life-threatening.

American Airlines said in a statement that Flight 383 aborted takeoff at 2:35 p.m. because of engine-related mechanical problems. A tire blew out, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating.

Passenger Gary Schiavone of Demotte, Ind., said there was a thud and then an explosion on the right side of the plane about 20 seconds after the plane began taxiing, before the plane had begun to lift off.

“First there was a clunk like the landing gear was going up, but a lot harder, then there was the explosion,” Schiavone said.

“What was I thinking: Flying. Just, I hate flying and the worst thing happened that you can imagine,” Schiavone said. “Twenty seconds later, we’d all be dead.”

Schiavone said he could see a “big, red ball of flames” on the left side of the plane, and a passenger with a window seat said he could see the glass cracking from the heat.

Passengers and crew got off the plane by sliding down two emergency chutes.

About 20 people were taken to area hospitals with injuries, mostly bruises and ankle sprains suffered when sliding down the inflatable ramp exiting the plane, Chicago Fire Department District Chief Juan Hernandez said.

The plane was moments before taking off when the fire happened.

The cabin began filling with smoke as passengers began getting off the plane. A few passengers tried to pull their luggage from the overhead compartments, the only hiccup in a largely orderly exit that took a little more than a minute, Schiavone said.

“This could have been absolutely devastating if it had happened later, if it had been further” along in takeoff,” Fire District Chief Timothy Sampey said at a new conference at O’Hare. The plane did, however, have “ample room” to stop.

Firefighters arrived at the burning plane about a minute after the flames were reported by the control tower, Sampey said. The fire was knocked out in seconds with a chemical foam and dry chemical, he said. Firefighters still were dealing with “hot spots” on the plane several hours after the flames had been extinguished.

The fire was the most “significant” at O’Hare in about eight years, Sampey said, and could have been far worse. A fully-loaded 767 carries about 43,000 pounds of fuel, he said.

Airport officials said four of the airport’s eight runways were open, enough to handle Friday evening traffic.

The plane was manufactured in 2003 and has a capacity for 218 passengers plus crew, records show.

Cardenas, a Chicago mortgage lender, posted an intense video featuring the inside of the plane, as passengers were about to escape via chutes.

In the video, the engines are still roaring. Some passengers are screaming, “Let’s go!” Others grab their luggage in overhead bins. Some are panicking. One woman screams, “Please.” The passengers are headed to the chutes when someone says “Jump and slide.” The video captures the slide down the chute with the airplane still on fire.

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my frickin’ God,” Cardenas says as he turns the video on himself.

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Cardenas was in the seventh row of the plane, looking at his phone when he heard the blast. Cardenas, 38, of River North, said he didn’t initially realize anything was wrong.

“We were toward the end of the runway. It was a blast and then there was fire and smoke and you’re just trying to get off the plane,” Cardenas said. “So it’s not like you really realize that things are going wrong. It happened within a matter of a minute.”

Cardenas said he could see the smoke and fire billowing from the right side of the plane, closest to passengers in the middle of the flight.

Hector Cardenas posted this picture to Facebook after he and other passengers were evacuated from American Airlines Flight 383 at O'Hare International Airport. | Photo courtesy of Hector Cardenas

Hector Cardenas posted this picture to Facebook after he and other passengers were evacuated from American Airlines Flight 383 at O’Hare International Airport. | Photo courtesy of Hector Cardenas

Cardenas said he recorded the ordeal on video because he happened to be organizing photos on his phone and deleting messages when the blast happened.

“I had the phone in my hand and I just clutched it and seconds later, I realized, Oh my God. What’s going on. And then three seconds later, it was just major panic and smoke coming in.”

Cardenas, who opted not to take another flight to Miami Friday night, said the fire could have been far worse. He said he called his mother as soon as he got off the plane, to let her know he was alright.

“Once I was on that tarmac, you realize that it was a matter of 10 seconds for that thing to really be in the air. It would have been a lot worse. Catastrophic, I think.”

Passenger Sarah Ahmed, who said she was one of the last off the plane, told ABC7 that smoke came into the passenger compartment, and flames were up against the windows. Evacuating passengers panicked at that point.

Hector Cardenas posted this picture to Facebook after he and other passengers were evacuated from American Airlines Flight 383 at O'Hare International Airport. | Photo courtesy of Hector Cardenas

Hector Cardenas posted this picture to Facebook after he and other passengers were evacuated from American Airlines Flight 383 at O’Hare International Airport. | Photo courtesy of Hector Cardenas

“It was chaos,” Ahmed said. “I thought it was the day I was going to die.”

Ahmed described a “stampede” of people, some shouting “open the door, open the door.”

“Everyone’s screaming and jumping over each other,” she said.

Ahmed said her co-worker “took a tumble” while sliding down the escape chutes. Others banged into each other on the slides.

Michelle Marsch, who was in a terminal about 100 yards from the plane, said people in the terminal were startled by an explosion. “It was just a big boom,” she told NBC5.

Fire trucks rushed to the plane “almost instantaneously.”

“It was quite seriously scary,” Marsch said.

Jose Castillo Jr., of Orlando, said in an interview with the Sun-Times that his father, Jose Castillo Sr., escaped on a chute with other passengers.

“He told me they were taking off, and the plane was at full throttle, and there was an explosion on the right side and then on the left side.”

The younger Castillo said his father told him that engines on both wings appeared to be on fire.

“He said a couple of seconds later, if they were in the air, it could have been a disaster,” Jose Castillo Jr. said.

He said his father left his belongings on the plane — including his cell phone — but was able to call with a borrowed phone.

Castillo Sr. took videos of the plane, too, and sent that to his son.

One video shows passengers escaping from the front and back of the plane on chutes and running away from the plane while black smoke pours from the right side. Some of the passengers were screaming.

Another video shows the right side of the plane on fire after passengers got off. Some passengers have their luggage and are staring at the spectacle while others are walking away in a grassy area near the runway.

“We are grateful that he is safe,” Castillo Jr. said, adding that his father, who owns an export management company in Florida, was in Chicago on business and going home.

Schiavone said he and his wife opted not to take a later flight to make their trip to visit their daughter in Miami, a three-day trip that would be more difficult since they lost their luggage.

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American Airlines said it would be putting the passengers on another flight to Miami on Friday night.

In 2003, a Boeing 727 leased by the U.S. Marshals Service blew two tires while landing at O’Hare, forcing about 100 handcuffed prisoners and their guards to slide down emergency chutes to safety.

In 1998, American Airlines Flight 1340 — 727 carrying 116 passengers and six crew members from Kansas City — landed short of a runway at O’Hare, tearing off the landing gear. Twenty-two passengers and crew reported minor injuries.

The worst crash in U.S. aviation history occurred in 1979 when American Airlines Flight 191 crashed moments after takeoff at O’Hare, killing all 258 passengers and 13 members of the crew. That plane was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10.