Investigators Focus on Oxygen Tank as Cause of Qantas Explosion

July 28, 2008

Australian investigators were focusing on the possibility that an oxygen cylinder could have exploded in mid-flight on the Qantas jumbo jet that made an emergency landing in the Philippines with a giant hole in its fuselage, officials said Sunday.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority said Qantas has been ordered to urgently inspect every oxygen bottle aboard its fleet of 30 Boeing 747s.

“At this stage, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is a security-related event,” Neville Blyth, senior investigator from the Australian Transport and Safety Bureau, told a news conference. “This is being treated as a safety investigation.”

Blyth said tests for bomb residue were negative. Philippine bomb-sniffing dogs had gone through the cargo hold and found no indication of explosives.

He said the focus is now on an oxygen bottle missing from the cargo hold that was left exposed when a section of the 747-400’s metal skin ripped away at 29,000 feet over the South China Sea on Friday.

Australian aviation safety authority official Peter Gibson said an inspection of all Qantas oxygen bottles on its fleet will take several days.

Passengers described the plane being shaken by a loud bang. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling as the plane descended rapidly due to the rapid decompression, and debris flew through the cabin from a 9-foot hole in the fuselage. The plane, en route from London to Melbourne, Australia, had made a stopover in Hong Kong an hour earlier.

Four Australian Transport Safety Bureau specialists began inspecting the aircraft Saturday and were expected to continue their work for two or three days with assistance from Boeing and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Blyth said.

The possibility of an explosion is one of several scenarios being considered by investigators, said Julian Walsh of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. “There are oxygen cylinders contained in the cargo compartment,” he told reporters. “The relevance of that will certainly be covered in the investigation.”

An official of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said initial reports indicated no link to terrorism.

A team of Philippine National Police bomb experts were also on hand to provide help in the investigation if needed, Ciron said. “It’s standard operating procedure to find out if there was an explosion or not. It looks like there was none, but we’re going to confirm that later on,” Ciron told The Associated Press.

Some passengers told Australian media that their oxygen masks failed to work properly during the crisis, leading some to nearly pass out.

Other passengers, while applauding the pilot and crew’s performance, told of having to share oxygen masks between three people because of faulty or broken emergency equipment.

“Ours didn’t come down, and my husband just about (passed out) because he didn’t have any oxygen for about three minutes,” Beverley Doors told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Passenger David Saunders said that one man in front of him smashed the ceiling panel in order to force his mask to come down and that children were screaming and flailing. “Their cheeks and lips were turning blue from lack of oxygen,” he said.

Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier said the design of the Qantas jet includes dozens of oxygen tanks located throughout the lower part of the aircraft, including below the passenger compartment where the hole is.

Qantas Chief Executive Officer Geoff Dixon told reporters Saturday he was “horrified” after seeing pictures of the gaping hole. He said it was too early to speculate on the cause. “There are thousands of aircraft flying around the world today. Things happen. Something has happened here and we cannot speculate any more about what did happen,” Dixon said.

Peter Gibson, spokesman for Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority, said speculation that rust contributed to the accident could be discounted. “It’s clearly an extremely rare and unusual event that a hole opens up in the fuselage,” he told reporters in Australia. “I know there are a number of theories around, but they’re just that at this stage, they’re just theories. We don’t have the solid facts.”

Qantas boasts a strong safety record and has never lost a jet to an accident. The last crash of a smaller airline plane was in 1951.

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