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Jet Accident Strands 400 in Remote Arctic Town

Aviation: Boeing 747, making emergency landing with an ill passenger, damages its engine. Those marooned take in the sights.

June 01, 1996|TODD PHILLIPS and ERIC MALNIC | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IQALUIT, Canada — About 400 passengers were stranded in this remote arctic community Friday when a Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet headed for Los Angeles hit a fuel tank after making an emergency landing to care for a sick passenger.

Canadian officials said the mishap with the fuel tank at the airport in this Northwest Territories town damaged one of the Boeing 747's engines. They said that it could be sometime today before two replacement planes can be flown in to complete the flight from London to Los Angeles International Airport.

The ill passenger--an American who suffered an apparent heart attack over the Atlantic--was reported in stable condition at a local hospital.

With temperatures hovering near freezing and a bitter wind sweeping down from the North Pole, the rest of the passengers took refuge in the local curling rink, which doubles as an emergency center. There are nowhere near enough hotel rooms to accommodate all the passengers.

Some of the more adventurous--wrapped in plaid blankets provided by the airline--created quite a stir when they strolled down the main street of this largely Inuit community of 4,000 on Baffin Island's still-frozen Frobisher Bay. The biggest attraction was a convenience store that sells pizzas.

"Everyone's been nice, but they look at us a little funny," said David Hedges, a passenger from London. "I think it's our attire."

The tour of downtown Iqaluit didn't take very long, and as the hours dragged on, boredom set in with a vengeance at the curling rink.

Some of the marooned passengers curled up with books and magazines scavenged from the jetliner, silently sipping coffee provided by a local emergency crew. Others queued up for the only pay phone at the rink, trying to reach families and friends in California to explain the long delay.

"They're conducting bingo in there, trying to keep everyone occupied," said Howard Rothenstein, a Carmel Valley investment banker who was returning home after a European cruise with his wife, Susan. "It's quite strange."

The airport--built by the U.S. military at the height of the Cold War--has been maintained as a refueling station since the thaw in East-West relations. Locals say several notables--including Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger--have been on planes that made brief stops at Iqaluit.

The captain aboard Virgin Atlantic's normally nonstop Flight 7 notified passengers about the need for an emergency stop while the plane was over the ocean. Rothenstein said that after an apparently normal landing, the plane started to taxi off the runway. He said he happened to be looking out the window as the jetliner struck the tank, rupturing it and spilling jet fuel onto the runway. "Ninety percent of the passengers had no idea what was going on," he said.

Richard D'Ambrosio, a Virgin Atlantic spokesman, said the damage to the 747 has not been assessed. He said two smaller jetliners were being chartered in New York and a Canadian city and would be flown to Iqaluit as soon as possible. D'Ambrosio said the passengers would be transported to New York, where they would be given the option of flying on to Los Angeles today or spending tonight at a New York hotel before completing the trip to Los Angeles on Sunday.

*

Phillips reported from Iqaluit and Malnic from Los Angeles.

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