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What is known about the fiery runway collision at a Tokyo airport

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We are learning more about the fiery accident on the runway at an airport in Tokyo on Tuesday evening. A Japan Airlines jet smashed into a Japan Coast Guard plane that was preparing to take off. Five people on the Coast Guard plane were killed. Three hundred seventy-nine passengers and crew were trapped in the cabin of the jumbo jet as it began to fill with smoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

KELLY: What you're hearing there is a girl sounding polite but insistent, a young girl saying, please get us out quickly in cell phone video posted to social media. Well, remarkably, flight attendants did manage to direct that girl and every other passenger on the plane to safety. NPR's Joel Rose covers transportation. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. Tell me more about what exactly happened as these two planes collided.

ROSE: Sure. The Japan Airlines Airbus A350 is coming in for a nighttime landing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, and it collides on the runway with a much smaller Japan Coast Guard plane that was loaded with supplies for earthquake relief victims, actually. In video footage of this incident, you can see the Coast Guard plane just explode in a giant orange fireball. And the Japan Airlines plane is covered in flames as it slides to a halt on the runway. The rear of that plane is actually on fire, and smoke is spreading inside the cabin. I want to play you a clip from one of the passengers, William Manzione, who spoke to Sky News in the U.K.

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WILLIAM MANZIONE: On the windows there were, like, flames. And then I realized, OK, this is not good - absolutely not good. So I took my son. We got down the slides. And then I turn around, and I seen the airplane with the nose completely smashed and the flames all over on the back.

ROSE: Still, the passengers stayed calm for the most part. Not a single person died on the jumbo jet; apparently, not even any major injuries.

KELLY: Just amazing. How did they manage that, the evacuation being completely successful?

ROSE: Safety experts say this is a huge credit to the flight attendants on the plane and also to the passengers. I talked to Stephen Creamer. He's an airline safety consultant and a former senior director at the International Civil Aviation Organization. Creamer says the entire evacuation was incredibly orderly.

STEPHEN CREAMER: The crew was clearly well trained and responded to that training in the way that was intended. People listened to them. They didn't panic. They helped each other. And then, of course, most important, they left things behind, and they went and got off the airplane.

ROSE: Creamer says that last part is crucial. Passengers did not try to drag their bulky carry-on luggage with them down the evacuation slides, which is something we have seen in past accidents. That slows everything down in an emergency. I should note, not everything went perfectly here. It took some time for the cabin doors to open. Flight attendants had to use bullhorns and their voices because the PA system didn't work. Japan Airlines said today that it took 18 minutes from the moment of impact to the time the last passenger left the plane. Again, that's not perfect, but still a great outcome under the circumstances.

KELLY: OK, so that's how they managed to evacuate anyone. What do we know about why this was able to happen in the first place?

ROSE: It's still early in the investigation. Air traffic control tapes appear to show that the Japan Airlines jet did have permission to land and that the Japan Coast Guard plane was not cleared to be on the runway. But there is a lot we just don't know yet, including why the pilots of the Japan Airlines jet didn't see the Coast Guard plane on the runway and whether the warning lights on the runway were working properly. Likely, we will not know the full story for a while.

But lastly, I just want to emphasize these events are very rare. Commercial aviation is incredibly safe. That said, we have seen a lot of close calls on runways in the U.S. in recent years. This could easily have been an incident on a runway here instead of in Japan.

KELLY: NPR transportation correspondent, Joel Rose. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.