GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- Flight 523 from Kennedy Airport had just touched down and passengers were applauding the pilot's landing in the South American country yesterday when something went wrong.
The Boeing 737-800 slid off the end of a rainy runway, crashed through a chain-link fence and broke in half just short of a deep ravine. Yet all 163 people on board survived.
Officials were starting to probe the cause of the crash even as they marveled at the lack of fatalities.
"We must be the luckiest country and luckiest set of people in the world to escape so lightly," said Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy, who said more than 30 people were taken to the hospital. Only three of those had to be admitted for a broken leg, bumps, cuts and bruises.
The Caribbean Airlines plane had left New York on Friday evening and made a stop in Trinidad before landing in Guyana. The airline said it was carrying 157 passengers and six crew members.
Geeta Ramsingh, 41, of Philadelphia, recalled how applause at the arrival quickly "turned to screams."
"The plane sped up as if attempting to take off again. It is then that I smelled gas in the cabin and people started to shout and holler," she said.
When the plane crumpled to a stop, Ramsingh said she hopped onto the wing and then onto the dirt road outside the runway fence.
"A fellow who was trying to escape as well mistakenly jumped on my back, and that is why my knees are bruised. So I am in pain, but very thankful to be alive," she said, sitting in the arrival area with relatives. She was returning to her native country for only the second time in 30 years.
The plane stopped a little short of a 200-foot ravine that could have resulted in dozens of fatalities, said President Bharrat Jagdeo.
"We are very, very grateful that more people were not injured," said Jagdeo, who came to the crash site before dawn.
George Nicholas, Caribbean Airlines chairman, told reporters that officials with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are scheduled to arrive today in Guyana to take over the investigation.