A Terrible Landing in Little Rock, Arkansas

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American Airlines Flight 1420 came in during a thunderstorm just before midnight Tuesday, and the rain-slicked runway just wasn't long enough. The twin-engine Super MD-80 outran 7,200 feet of asphalt, careened past an access road and whipped around a metal tower that peeled back the plane's thin shell on the left side, said one passenger, "like a sardine can." Then the spilled fuel caught fire, and the race to get out was on. Of 139 passengers and six crew members on board, 80 people were injured and taken to hospitals. Fifty-one others did not require hospital treatment. Nine are dead -- the first on a major U.S. airline in nearly a year-and-a-half.

From the accounts of the survivors, it might have been much worse. David Stanley told the Associated Press: "We landed, the plane started skidding, and then flames, flames," he said. "I remember flames and flames." The plane slid all the way to the edge of the Arkansas River -- forcing passengers to disembark in waist-deep water. But aside from the horror, few hints have emerged of exactly what went wrong. The flight had been delayed two hours in Dallas, and arrived in Little Rock at the wrong time: Just as a storm began buffeting the airport with lightning, hail and winds gusting to 75 mph. Yet no distress call from the plane reached the tower. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are on the scene, and they would seem to have one question to ask: Why did Flight 1420 attempt a landing?