Passengers on a WestJet flight to Toronto from Mexico Friday night received a terrifying welcome in Canada.
While sitting on the tarmac at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the wing of their aircraft was struck by a Sunwing plane, which then caught on fire.
"There was a big bang and the plane shook furiously," Winnipeg resident Mike Bennett said by phone from Toronto, 20 minutes after the incident at 5:15 p.m. central time. "The wing burst into flames, and they grew bigger and bigger.
"Everyone stood up and started yelling.
"The crew took over and opened the emergency hatches. My wife (Jen Kirkwood) and I exited down the big slide."
Passengers on the sold-out flight from Cancun weren’t prepared to be forced outdoors in freezing temperatures, roughly -16 C, he said.
"People were in sandals and shorts and a lot of people were crying. That slide is really slippery, and it’s cold."
WestJet confirmed on Twitter that an inbound Boeing 737-800 with 168 passengers and six crew on board was waiting to proceed to the gate at Pearson when it was struck by a Sunwing aircraft that was pushing back from a gate.
"We were backed up. We’d landed on time, but then the captain got on the intercom and said another plane was offloading at our area and it will take awhile," Bennett said.
"Then, there was another announcement: that they’re short-staffed and it will take a little more time and ‘thanks for your patience.’
"There were huge amounts of smoke that almost covered the whole plane," he said, adding inside the cabin there was no smoke, but the passengers could smell it and many were afraid the plane would explode.
"Everyone thought that — that’s your immediate thought: ‘The plane’s going to explode.’ This isn’t a little campfire and there’s gasoline," Bennett said. "It was life and death.
"The crew was yelling at us, ‘Go! Go! Go!’" he said.
"The staff did really well. It was a class-A emergency escape."
On the tarmac, there was no one to help the passengers from the burning aircraft, Bennett said.
"We were let out on the middle of the Pearson tarmac. We all ran to the big building and we banged on the windows," he said.
"A security guard let us in his warming hut."
When the passengers were let into the airport, they were "corralled" into an area and waited for instructions, Bennett said.
Airline workers took a head count of passengers and were told no one was hurt exiting the plane, he said.
"After two weeks of paradise, that was our ‘welcome home,’" joked Bennett, a semi-retired teacher with the Winnipeg School Division and an avid runner.
Bennett was in the news last month, and it was good news: he ran farther than a marathon to raise funds for accessible arts programming in the West Broadway neighbourhood.
Bennett, 61, laced up his jogging shoes and ran 58.341 kilometres on the loop that goes down Wolseley Avenue, across the railway bridge by Omand’s Creek to Wellington Crescent, down the Crescent to the Maryland Bridge and back to Wolseley, as part of a personal fundraiser for Art City.
On Friday night, he and his wife were waiting to find out when they would be able to get a connecting flight to Winnipeg.
"Still up in the air," he joked as they were being moved by bus from a secure area of the airport to another location.
The Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
Updated on Friday, January 5, 2018 at 7:15 PM CST: Updates
8:49 PM: adds video link
10:53 PM: Full write through
10:58 PM: adds thumbnail