Passengers recount escape from burning Mexican plane

Firefighters douse a fire as smoke billows above the site where an Aeromexico-operated Embraer passenger jet crashed in Mexico's northern state of Durango, July 31, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Proteccion Civil Durango/via REUTERS

By Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Shortly after boarding her flight in the northern Mexican state of Durango afternoon on Tuesday afternoon, Ashley Garcia had a premonition that something was wrong.

The 17-year-old high school student from Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, was one of 65 U.S. citizens among the 103 passengers and crew aboard the Aeromexico passenger jet that crashed near the runway shortly after take-off.

Settling into her seat, Garcia saw a storm was gathering fast in the distance, and by the time the aircraft began preparing for takeoff it was battered by strong winds, hail and rain. Garcia captured the scene through her window with her cellphone.

“I had a gut feeling: just record it, just record it,” said Garcia. “I was like, there’s no way we are taking off, it’s too risky.”

The flight crashed moments after taking off, skidding to a halt in scrubland near the runway, a wing in flames. Passengers described how they followed escape procedures, enabling everyone to evacuate without any fatalities.

“We had been told so many times what to do,” Garcia said of the safety protocol passengers around the world are taught every time they board a plane. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen until it happens to them. We were there for each other… That’s how we were able to get off safely.”

Investigators found the Embraer passenger jet’s recorders on Wednesday and have still to determine the cause of the crash. Aeromexico said 64 people have been released from hospitals. Two people, including the pilot, were more seriously injured.

Garcia was returning to the United States with three cousins after a two-week trip to visit relatives, traveling from Durango to Mexico City to catch a connecting flight to Chicago.

Liliana Gallarzo, Garcia’s cousin, thought the bumpy take-off was turbulence until the aircraft began skidding and panic set in.

“We were screaming,” said Gallarzo, a 19-year-old college student from Chicago. “Everyone was trying to get away from the plane, trying to get out.”

They smelled the smoke right away. But the cousins were seated in the middle of the cabin, and passengers were exiting from the front and rear doors, as the emergency exits in the middle of the plane were unused due to the fire near the wing, Garcia said.

Filing behind fellow travelers, they made their way toward the rear as the aircraft filled with smoke. Garcia grabbed her phone but left her luggage behind, losing her glasses in the shuffle.

When they reached the exit, there were no emergency slides, meaning they had to jump, Garcia said. A trampoline was there to cushion their fall, and fellow passengers helped them make the jump.

Once off the plane, Garcia coughed and vomited, choking for air. A flight attendant directed the cousins to get as far away as possible from the plane, which was soon engulfed by the fire, leaving only smoldering wreckage after firefighters extinguished the blaze. They walked through the rain, their clothes soaked.

After waiting for further direction, they headed closer to the runway, where firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency personnel sprang into action, checking passengers for injuries. Suffering from minor scratches and bruises, Garcia was taken to the hospital, where she underwent X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before returning home that night.

She said the compassion shown to her by emergency personnel affirmed her desire to be a police officer. She has a flight home booked for Friday.

“I didn’t think I would be able to get back on a flight, but I have experienced the worst,” Garcia said. “So now, whatever happens, it’s meant to happen.”

(Reporting by Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon; writing by Julia Love; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Winds fanning wildfires won’t die down until Tuesday, thousands of homes evacuated: NWS

A plane drops fire-retardant chemicals on the 416 Fire near Durango, California, U.S. in this June 9, 2018 handout photo. La Plata County/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Gusting winds driving the flames of a largely uncontrolled wildfire are expected to keep fanning the blaze through an 11th day on Monday on the bone-dry hills of southwest Colorado, where more than 2,000 homes have already been evacuated.

“This is not good news for them,” said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

“There’s no rain in sight and the winds are going to be 15 mph with higher gusts all day. That’s a bad combination,” he said.

More powerful wind gusts of 35-45 mph (56-72 km/h) helped drive a largely unchecked wildfire north of Durango to nearly double in size from Saturday to Sunday.

There were no new burn-area updates early on Monday for the so-called 416 Fire in southwest Colorado but, according to the last update, it had burned nearly 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares) by Sunday evening, an area larger than Manhattan.

More than 800 firefighters were battling the blaze located north of Durango, which was 10 percent contained, the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team said.

While the winds were dropping on Monday to about 25 mph, Oravec said it was only modest good news.

“It’s still a fan on the fire,” Oravec said. “It won’t be until Tuesday before the winds really die down.”

No structures have been destroyed so far but the fire was a few hundred yards from homes, with multiple aircraft dropping water and flame retardant to curtail the blaze, according to Inciweb, an interagency fire report.

“The terrain is rough and inaccessible in many areas,” the report said. June 30 was the estimated date for containment, it said.

The NWS has placed large portions of the so-called Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona under a red flag warning of extreme fire danger due to the dry conditions.

A near-record 10 million acres (4 million hectares) were burned in U.S. wildfires in 2017, the National Interagency Coordination Center said.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Paul Tait)

Colorado wildfire threatens more homes as wind spreads blaze

A helicopter drops water on the 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, U.S. in this June 4, 2018 handout photo obtained by Reuters June 5, 2018. La Plata County/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A wildfire raging largely unchecked on Wednesday in southwest Colorado forced hundreds of residents to prepare to evacuate and could spread to other states, officials warned.

Emergency crews said they had only managed to contain 10 percent of the fire near the towns of Durango and Hermosa, where the forecast was for another dry, hot day, with wind gusts likely to spread the fire.

The fire grew about 1,000 acres from Tuesday to Wednesday, to cover 4,015 acres (1,625 hectares). It is expanding to the north, the west and the south but has not crossed U.S. Highway 550, which has helped firefighters protect 825 houses east of the highway, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County.

Residents of those 825 houses were ordered to evacuate several days ago, after the fire started on Friday.

La Plata County has issued pre-evacuation notices for about another 1,250 residences, Graham said.

Vehicles are being allowed to travel through the area on Highway 550 in single-file convoys protected and escorted by law enforcement officers, Graham said.

“Please do not stop to take photos and observe the fire! Stay with the convoy!” a Twitter message posted on Wednesday by La Plata County warned.


The 416 Fire – named, local media said, after its official incident number – burned over steep terrain sending smoke billowing into the sky.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blaze, said Cam Hooley, spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest.

The Durango Herald reported that a retired volunteer firefighter noticed the fire last Friday morning.

The National Weather Service has placed large sections of the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah under an elevated fire risk.

In New Mexico, the Ute Park wildfire was 30 percent contained by Wednesday morning, having burned 36,800 acres (14,892 hectares) of drought-parched grassland and timber since last Thursday. The 1,110 residents of Cimarron, New Mexico, were on Monday allowed back into their homes after showers on Sunday helped quell part of that blaze.

No injuries or major damage to structures have been reported from either fire.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

Colorado wildfire rages as firefighters gain on New Mexico blaze US-USA-WILDFIRES

The 416 Fire near Durango, southern Colorado. REUTERS/Courtesy La Plata County, Colorado

(Reuters) – Hot weather was expected to stoke an unchecked wildfire in southern Colorado on Tuesday that forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes.

The blaze, dubbed the 416 Fire, spread across some 2,400 acres (971 hectares) early on Tuesday near Durango, Colorado, where the temperature was expected to reach into the high 80s.

The fire, which began on Friday, was just 10 percent contained on Tuesday morning, as about 825 homes remained under evacuation, officials said.

“In the coming days the fire is expected to burn actively,” the U.S. Forest Service said in an alert. “Firefighters will continue building defensible spaces around homes and structures.”

About 250 miles (400 km) to southeast, 1,110 residents of Cimarron, New Mexico were allowed back into their homes after showers on Sunday helped quell part of a separate blaze, the Ute Park Fire, which burned 36,000 acres (14,569 hectares) of drought-parched grassland and timber since erupting on Thursday.

Cimarron, a frontier-style town, lies about 140 miles (225 km) northeast of Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. Ute Park is about 10 miles (16 km) west of Cimarron.

By early Tuesday, fire crews had managed to carve containment lines around 25 percent of the blaze, up from zero containment on Sunday morning.

About 75 people from the small nearby community of Ute Park, near the Colorado border, remained under a mandatory evacuation on Monday, said Judith Dyess, spokeswoman for the multi-agency Southwest Incident Management Team managing the blaze.

The causes of both fires were unknown and under investigation. No injuries or property losses were reported from either.

“Critical fire weather and smoky conditions are expected to return in the coming days as a high pressure system is building from the south,” fire officials said in an alert regarding the New Mexico fire.

The nearby Santa Fe National Forest was closed to the public indefinitely on Friday in a rare measure prompted by the heightened fire risk from prolonged drought.