All seemed normal to the 300 people aboard the Emirates airliner as it flew past the world’s tallest building in hazy skies and made a slow left turn over the waters of the Persian Gulf. But as soon as the plane touched down at Dubai International Airport, everyone knew something had gone wrong.
“It was a big noise,” said Shadi Kochuktty, a passenger from India. “We hadn’t heard any announcement but it was a big noise.”
From that terrifying moment on, all those on board the Boeing 777 faced the nightmare all white-knuckle fliers fear: Smoke filling the cabin. People screaming. And the rush to escape.
The three-and-a-half-hour, nearly 3,000-kilometre (1,860-mile) flight itself began normally. It left from the Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala state, where many of the United Arab Emirates’ construction workers, taxi drivers and labourers come from in search of a better life.
Flight EK521 took off at 10:19am and was scheduled to land at 12:50am local time, according to Emirates. The aircraft flew over the Arabian Sea and later Oman on a northwesterly course heading toward Dubai.
By the time it reached the skies over its destination, the scorching mid-day sun had raised temperatures to a humid 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s about average for this time of year. Winds of 39 kilometers an hour (24mph) blew toward the northwest at the airfield, according to the UAE’s National Center for Meteorology and Seismology.
As the aircraft made its descent, there were reports of wind shear at the airport, though it was unclear if it had any effect on what happened, Emirates CEO and chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said. Wind shear is a sudden downdraft encountered by aircraft that can be dangerous, especially for planes near the ground.
The control tower at the airport remained in contact with the flight as it slowed and descended toward Runway One-Two-Right, according to air traffic recordings made by aviation website LiveATC.net. The scratchy recording includes someone calling out the flight’s number and saying “returning to 4,000,” suggesting the pilot attempted to abort the landing and regain altitude.
But at that point, passengers inside the flight had no idea something was about to go wrong until the loud noise rang through the cabin as the plane hit the ground. The plane skidded across the airport runway, turning slightly as part of the wing tore away.
Smoke started coming through the cabin.
“All the people were shouting, all the children, all the women,” said Arun Krishna, a passenger from India.
Flight attendants jumped out of their seats as the plane screeched to a stop, opening emergency doors on the craft and inflating the emergency slides.
Asked what the flight attendants said then, Kochuktty offered one word: “Escape!”
As horrified passengers on other planes watched, people slid down the slide and began walking to safety. Some clutched bags and suitcases, though many left behind passports and money. Some passengers, barefoot, burned their soles on the hot runway.
In the control tower, a female controller ordered firefighters to respond immediately: “Do not wait to proceed! ... All fire vehicles, all fire vehicles proceed to the aircraft.”
Trucks quickly surrounded the burning aircraft, spraying foam on it to try to contain the flames. An explosion struck one side and in the chaos, one firefighter was killed, Sheikh Ahmed, the Emirates CEO, said.
The fire burned away the top of the airplane’s fuselage, singeing the Emirates name in gold.
The tower controller asked: “Do we want to shut down?”
Minutes later, the crash-landing had closed the world’s third-busiest airport, diverting flights for long-haul carrier Emirates and others across the UAE and into other countries.
Passengers and crew from EK521 made it inside a nearby terminal, with at least 10 requiring hospital care. By 4pm, some passengers on board the flight began leaving, vouchers in their hands for hotels as they entered waiting taxis. Several said they needed assistance from the Indian Consulate as they had lost all their travel documents, but they remained grateful to be alive.
“See, our belongings are gone that’s no problem. Our family is safe,” Kochuktty said. “We have saved our life. Lord had mercy on us.”