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Passengers Frozen by Panic, Blocked Exits Reportedly Hamper Evacuation

February 7, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Passengers stood frozen in fear near an exit for several seconds, contributing to the loss of life aboard an airliner that hit a commuter plane in a crash that killed 34 people, a survivor said.

Five of the jetliner’s six emergency exits also were blocked or not opened immediately after the crash, further hindering escape efforts, according to a report published today.

The USAir jetliner, a Boeing 737 carrying 89 people, was landing at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday when it smashed into a Skywest Metroliner preparing to take off. Twenty-two people aboard the 737 died and all 12 people on the smaller turboprop plane were killed.

Survivor William Heichel told The Associated Press Wednesday that after the crash panic-stricken passengers stood motionless in front of the 737′s right wing exit as the cabin filled with smoke.

″As a former fireman I knew we were going to die. That toxic smoke was going to kill us,″ said Heichel, 46. ″I never thought I would see people standing still. They were frozen.″

Heichel said he scrambled over several seats to the left wing emergency exit, opened it and fell outside onto the plane’s wing. He broke his leg getting to the ground.

Of the six emergency exits, five were either blocked or there were delays in opening them, which further hampered escape efforts, The New York Times reported today.

The Times quoted safety investigators as saying one exit was jammed shut, another was blocked by flames from the fire that followed the crash and a third was temporarily blocked by two men who got into a fight over who should exit first.

A fourth exit was damaged in the crash and a fifth could only be opened with difficulty, the newspaper said.

Of the 21 people who died aboard the plane, 20 were trying to get out, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator James Burnett. One person who did escape died of burns and one victim was found strapped in his seat.

Burnett also described scenes of panic he said investigators pieced together from interviews with survivors.

He told of two men who trampled a woman trying to get to the right wing exit, then blocked it as they fought over who would go out first. A third man cleared the exit when he threw one of the men out, Burnett said.

A woman sitting next to the exit originally failed to open it, Burnett said, and a man sitting behind her had to do it.

Under federal regulations adopted last year, passengers seated next to exits have to be physically and mentally able to open them. Flight attendants are to ask them if they will open the exits during an emergency and help people out. If they say no they are moved to other seats.

Friday’s accident occurred when an air traffic controller put the commuter plane and the 737 on the same runway.

In the moments before the crash the controller was busy handling two other aircraft, including one she was trying to get off the runway where the accident occurred, investigators said.

The 737′s co-pilot, David Kelly, said he didn’t see the Skywest plane until after the nose of his jet had touched down.

″As the aircraft’s nose came down, he saw a red light, the tail of the airplane and his landing lights shining through the propellers,″ Burnett said. ″There was an explosion, a flash and then everything went dark.″

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