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Escape chute 'mayhem' revealed

The scenes after a Virgin Atlantic emergency landing, with passengers colliding at the bottom of escape chutes, have been described by air accident investigators.

Some passengers from the Virgin Airbus A330 aircraft fell on the tarmac at Gatwick airport, with two being seriously injured, said the report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).

At one point, a t the bottom of one slide, a fireman tried to protect those already lying on the floor from those coming down the slide by lying across the bottom of the slide.

But the report showed that the emergency landing and the subsequent evacuation - leading to flights at Gatwick being suspended for two hours - had come after a faulty smoke detector generated "multiple spurious" smoke warnings.

The first of these warnings had come 15 minutes into the flight from Gatwick to Orlando in Florida on the morning of April 16 2012, with 13 crew and 304 passengers, including three infants, aboard. There were 15 warnings in all and captain decided to return to Gatwick.

But after the landing, subsequent inspection of the aircraft had found no evidence of fire, smoke or heat on the aircraft.

Immediately after the incident, passengers had told of "complete chaos" on board and "mayhem" as travellers piled on top of each other at the bottom of the emergency chutes, with 15 people being taken to hospital.

In today's report, the AAIB said the evacuation had "come as a surprise to the cabin crew".

The report went on: "Many passengers were seen to land awkwardly at the bottom of the slide and one lady was observed to fall on to the tarmac, after which passengers following collided into her.

"At one exit, the fireman at the bottom of the slide asked the crew to slow down the rate that passengers were leaving until the blockage at the bottom of the slide could be cleared.

"One man was injured at the bottom of a slide and was being attended by paramedics, which slowed the evacuation until he could be moved."

The report added that, according to the Gatwick rescue and firefighting service (RFFS), "a number of passengers landed awkwardly at the bottom of the slides and many toppled forward on to the concrete, suffering minor injuries".

The RFFS information in the report said: "Passengers on the slides were very close to each other and many did not have time to clear the area at the bottom of the slide before being hit by the following passenger.

"At the bottom of one slide, a fireman tried to protect those already lying on the floor from those coming down the slide by lying across the bottom of the slide."

The AAIB said the message that there was smoke in the cargo hold was misunderstood by air traffic controllers at Brest in France, and the message was "corrupted during onward transmission", leading to Gatwick's rescue and firefighting service positioning fire vehicles at the wrong end of the aircraft.

The report also said that cabin crew reported to the incorrect location on the runway, with the captain instructing them to stand down rather than stand by.

The AAIB said that one of the escape slides did not inflate properly, which meant that exit was unusable. The evacuation was completed in 109 seconds, with most passengers out within a minute.

The report also said there was confusion between the incident commander on the ground and the air traffic control watch manager over the correct status of the incident.

The report went on: "Consequently, there was a delay in passing a message to relevant emergency and support agencies that there had been an evacuation on the runway."

The AAIB made a number of safety recommendations including calling for visual aids to show passengers, including those with young children, how to use escape devices.

A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said today: "The safety of our passengers and crew is our top priority. We co-operated fully with the AAIB throughout the investigation and while the report makes no formal recommendations to the airline, we took many actions immediately after the event in order to identify any areas where we could enhance our procedures.

"Virgin Atlantic carries out all training to strict guidelines set by our regulators and we are very proud of the actions our crew took on the day. We would like to thank our customers for their co-operation during and after the event."


From Belfast Telegraph