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Jet Skids Off Chicago Runway

December 9, 2005 GMT

CHICAGO (AP) _ At first, the passengers aboard the Southwest flight arriving amid heavy snow at Midway International Airport thought it was a normal landing. Then there was a jolt _ and the plane was in the street.

The jetliner with more than 100 people aboard skidded across the runway Thursday evening, slammed through a fence and struck two vehicles in the street, pinning one beneath it. A 6-year-old boy in one car was killed, and 10 other people, including two in the plane, were injured, authorities said.

``I saw snow rush over the wing, then there was a big bump,″ said passenger Larry Vazzano, 54, of Baltimore. ``I braced myself on the seat in front of me.″

The crash closed the airport, Chicago’s second largest after O’Hare International. Midway reopened around 6 a.m. Friday, and authorities said at least 600 people were stranded because of canceled flights.

Flight 1248 from Baltimore touched down around 7:15 p.m. Though the airport had about 7 inches of snow, aviation officials said conditions at the time were acceptable.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the plane had circled Midway for 30 to 35 minutes because of the weather and the flight traffic before it was cleared for landing on the airport’s 6,500-foot runway. The airport, surrounded by homes and businesses, has shorter runways than most major airports, because it was originally built to handle smaller propeller planes. The larger ones land at O’Hare.

``There are no indications that there are any maintenance problems with that aircraft whatsoever,″ Kelly said. He said the plane had a service check Wednesday in Phoenix.

Five crew and 98 passengers were aboard the plane, authorities said. Most were evacuated through the plane’s inflatable slides in blowing snow, while others used stairs at the rear of the plane, said Chicago Fire Department Spokesman Larry Langford.

The plane’s nose was crushed, and a severely damaged engine was on the ground, he said.

Passenger Mike Abate, 35, of suburban Milwaukee, said he could see from the plane that a man was carrying an injured child and that other people were taken away in an ambulance.

``We were safe on the plane,″ Abate said. ``The toughest part was to realize that someone was under the belly of the plane.″

The four people who were in the pinned vehicle with the boy who died were hospitalized Friday at Advocate Christ Medical Center, and two of them, including a child, were in serious condition.

Three people from the other car were treated and released and a fourth was in good condition at Holy Cross Hospital, spokeswoman Michelle Boyd said. The two plane passengers were treated and released at MacNeal Hospital, along with tow truck driver who stopped to help and aggravated an old injury.

National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration officials from Washington were on their way to Chicago to investigate.

Experts said weather would be a factor in the investigation. Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator, said the runway had been plowed, but it wasn’t clear for how long.

``That’s going to be a key for investigators, to know just how much snow fell on the runway, because that’s a key to braking action,″ Feith told NBC’s ``Today.″ The plane remained in the street Friday morning.

Snow caused trouble Thursday for travelers across the Midwest, with as much as 10 inches on the ground in some areas. The system was moving eastward early Friday.

The accident happened 33 years to the day after a crash at Midway that killed 45 people, two of them on the ground. Eighteen other passengers survived.

In that crash, a United Airlines jet struck tree branches about a mile from the airport, then hit the roofs of a number of bungalows before plowing into a home, bursting into flames. Among the dead were Dorothy Hunt, the wife of Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt, and CBS newswoman Michele Clark.

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Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Dallas contributed to this report.