January 6, 2006

Plane veers off runway in finals week snow

As students were heading home for the holidays, those flying from Midway Airport on Thursday, December 8, were delayed by something other than bad Chicago weather. A Southwest Airlines jet veered off the runway, killing a six-year-old boy.

The Boeing 737 aircraft was trying to land in 18 centimeters of snow when it slid beyond the runway through a boundary fence into the intersection of Central Avenue and 55th Street, hitting one vehicle and pinning another vehicle beneath it.

Flight 1248 was arriving from Baltimore at Chicago Midway when it veered off the runway onto the street intersection beyond the northwest corner of the runway, according to a Southwest Airlines news release.

The passengers used inflatable slides to get out of the plane in the snow. Of the 98 passengers and five crew members onboard, 13 were checked into local hospitals for minor injuries.

Midway was closed after the accident. The nose of the plane was crushed and a severely damaged engine was on the ground, according to Chicago Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board traveled to Midway to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. Officials say that Southwest Airlines had a waiver to land, despite the fact that visibility was below standard safety regulations at the time of the incident.

The incident also sparked debates over buffer zones and safety regulations at airports across the country. Much attention has been focused on Midway’s 6500-foot runway, which lacks the 1000-foot buffer zone at the end of its runways. Midway also lacks crushable concrete beds, which some airports put at the end of a runway to slow an aircraft if it slides off the end of the runway.

Six-year-old Joshua Woods was killed when he was crushed in the car pinned down by the jet.

In a press conference the next morning, CEO of Southwest Airlines Gary Kelly discussed the Chicago Midway incident. Kelly extended Southwest’s sympathies to those who were directly affected by the events of the previous night.

“This is a sad day for us here,” said Kelly, according to the news release. “There are no words to adequately convey our grief and sorrow over this tragedy. It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of a child who was in one of the vehicles hit by the aircraft.”

So far, three passengers onboard Flight 1248 have filed lawsuits against Southwest for failing to assess the runway conditions and failing to divert to another airport. A 59-year-old man from Oak Park has filed a lawsuit for his damaged vehicle, hit by the Southwest jet. According to Associated Press reports, the lawyer representing the Woods family said they also plan a lawsuit, but one has not yet been filed. It is the first fatality in the 31-year history of the airline.