When an Aeromexico jetliner slicing through hail and turbulence was slammed to the ground moments after taking off from the airport in Durango, Mexico, on Tuesday, at least two passengers from the Chicago area — and no doubt, many more — thought they were going to die in the flaming aircraft that skidded to rest in a scrubby field.
They survived. Remarkably, so did all 103 people aboard Flight 2431, though dozens were hospitalized.
“It just makes you think that you’ve been given a second chance at life,” Alberto Herrera, 35, a web developer from Chicago’s Clearing neighborhood, said on Wednesday afternoon. He was in a hotel room waiting to hear when he could board a return flight home. “You’re very, very grateful and appreciative of being able to create more memories with your loved ones.”
A day earlier Herrera had headed home after spending nearly a week in Mexico to celebrate a niece’s baptism and visit relatives.
Aboard the same flight was the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines. He was in Mexico to celebrate his birthday with family.
Sanchez was seated near the front of the Embraer 190 jet bound for Mexico City. Herrera was seated at a window behind one of the wings. The two men were among what Herrera estimated were about 70 passengers who reside in the Chicago area or were headed to the Chicago area for a visit.
After encountering turbulence and hail a few hundred feet above ground, the plane abruptly “belly-flopped on the ground” and started skidding in the field, Herrera recalled. It experienced two more jolts — as if it struck something both times, said Herrera, who was seated at the window in Row 20.
“When we hit the second time and you see the flames outside the window, yeah, that’s the moment when you think, ‘This is it. Hopefully it’s been a good run.’”
Passengers said the plane burst into flames right after it hit the ground.
“To be honest with you, I thought that was it,” said Sanchez, adding that he had received flight training years ago. “I’m just very grateful.”
Once the plane skidded to a halt, Herrera said, passengers rushed to exits, but were orderly and helpful to the elderly and injured. He said he went to a side exit at the rear of the plane and helped five or six people make the estimated 5-foot jump from the exit to the ground.
His only injuries, he said, were scraped knees from them hitting the seat in front of him during the crash.
The priest said he had multiple fractures in his arm and needs a surgically implanted metal plate to help him heal.
“I’ll be a bionic priest,” Sanchez joked in a 20-minute teleconference with reporters on Wednesday.
As the plane was rolling down the runway, Sanchez noticed the rain, hail and intense winds pick up, he said, and he wondered if the pilot would stop the takeoff.
Instead, Sanchez noticed that the pilot revved the engine. He said he thought the plane became airborne briefly.
Seconds later, a “microburst” pushed the plane back to earth with a thud, recalled Sanchez, whose group included more than a dozen people from the Chicago area. The plane’s landing gear buckled and the aircraft slammed to a halt, he said.
In the moments before takeoff, Sanchez recalled “a lot of joy” throughout the cabin. After the plane crashed, “the smoke was unbelievable,” he said, “a burning sensation when breathing.” He saw flames.
Passengers scrambled to exit the plane and made their way through thorny, rocky terrain while the rain continued, Sanchez said. After he escaped, he said, he walked among small groups of passengers and tried to administer aid.
Later, he and a girl with severe leg burns were placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Then he was transferred to a second hospital.
When asked if it was a miracle that everyone aboard survived the crash, Sanchez said, “Absolutely. I have no doubt.”
If the plane had been traveling faster, it would have flipped, he said. If it had gotten higher off the ground, “the story would have been very different,” Sanchez added.
The Archdiocese of Chicago issued a statement Tuesday night, saying it was “grateful to learn (Sanchez) is alert and resting. We pray for Fr. Sanchez and everyone affected by this plane crash.”
Officials said 49 people had been hospitalized — most with minor injuries.
Other passengers expressed gratitude to be alive, but many were extremely shaken.
“It was really, really ugly,” said Lorenzo Nunez, a passenger from Chicago who fled the plane with his two sons and wife. “It burned in a question of seconds,” he told reporters, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
Romulo Campuzano, a Durango state politician who was on the plane, told Foro TV that both wings were on fire as he bolted from the aircraft.
Passengers said they heard a loud noise as the plane’s left wing banged to the ground, and both engines tore loose. The plane stayed upright, though, and the escape slides activated.
Durango state Gov. Jose Aispuro said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the crash. Mechanical failure and human error could be factors, but the weather was unfavorable. Strong winds and heavy rain with marble-size hail lashed Durango city, even damaging hangars at the airport.
“The most important thing in the seriousness that is an accident of this nature is that there were no deaths,” Aispuro said at a news conference.
After the accident, several passengers walked away from the plane before first responders arrived. Some sought medical help, while others rushed home to loved ones. Officials spent much of the afternoon tracking down survivors to ensure that everyone was accounted for.
The pilot suffered the most serious injury, a cervical lesion that required surgery. Some people had burns on a quarter of their bodies, said Durango state Health Ministry spokesman Fernando Ros.
Aeromexico Chief Executive Officer Andres Conesa said the passengers included 88 adults, nine children and two babies and the crew consisted of two flight attendants and two pilots.
He said the jetliner had been sent for maintenance in February and crew members were well-rested, having started their work day in Durango.
The Associated Press contributed from Mexico City.