Investigators are searching for a voice recorder in the severely burned fuselage of a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane after a timeline was released revealing it took just 18 minutes to evacuate all 379 passengers from the stricken flight.
Transport safety officials are looking into what caused the collision between the passenger jet and a small coastguard plane on the runway at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Tuesday.
On Saturday they used heavy machinery for a second day to remove debris of the burned Airbus A350 into a hangar to allow the runway to reopen. The wreckage from the coastguard plane has already been cleared.
All 379 occupants of JAL Flight 516 were safely evacuated within 18 minutes of landing as the aircraft was engulfed in flames, something experts and the media have described as “a miracle”.
The pilot of the coastguard plane survived but his five other crewmembers died.
The coastguard aircraft was on a mission to deliver relief goods to survivors of powerful earthquakes in central Japan which killed at least 100 people.
There has been speculation controllers may not have paid attention to the coastguard plane’s presence on the runway when they gave the JAL plane permission to land.
Local broadcaster NHK reported that footage from its monitoring camera at the airport showed the coastguard plane moved to the runway and stopped for about 40 seconds before the collision.
In the footage the coastguard aircraft enters the runway from the C5 taxiway, then shortly afterwards the passenger plane touches down right behind and rams into it, creating an orange fireball.
The JAL airliner, covered with flames and spewing grey smoke, continues down the runway before coming to a stop around 1km (0.62 miles) away.
A ‘miracle’ evacuation
The JAL flight crew began its emergency response but the usual cabin announcement system had malfunctioned, according to the airline, and the crew shouted into a megaphone to make sure all passengers heard their instructions.
Flight attendants urged passengers to stay calm and leave their belongings behind while making their way towards the closest of the only three usable exits – two forward ones and the third at the rear – as five others were deemed unsafe.
A survivor’s video shows smoke filling the cabin as people grow desperate, with some shouting “please let us out!” as children begin to cry.
Many others remained calm and followed instructions to leave the burning plane on emergency chutes.
The captain ensured nobody was left behind in the cabin and was the last to leave the aircraft 18 minutes after touchdown.
Japan plane fire: What happened
Small coastguard jet ‘wasn’t cleared for take-off’
Experts investigating minutes before collision
Experts from the Japan Transport Safety Board have secured the flight and voice data recorders from the coastguard’s Bombardier Dash-8 plane and a flight data recorder from the JAL jet to find out what happened in the last few minutes before the fatal collision.
A transcript of recorded communication at traffic control released by the transport ministry on Wednesday showed the controller told the coastguard plane to taxi to a holding position just before the runway, saying it had the number one departure priority.
The coastguard pilot repeats the instruction and then thanks them for the top slot. There was no further instruction from control allowing the coastguard to enter the runway.
The pilot told police investigators his aircraft was struck just as he powered up the engines after obtaining clearance to take off.
The small lights on the coastguard aircraft and its 40-second stop may have made it less visible to the JAL pilots and air traffic control.
NHK also said control officials may have missed an alert system for unauthorised runway entry while engaging in other operations.