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Airliner Burns at Okinawa Airport; Passengers, Crew Escape

A dramatic evacuation of a China Airlines Boeing 737-800 is being credited for saving all of the passengers and crew minutes before the plane burst into a fireball. Just three people were taken to hospital - two passengers who felt sick, and a firefighter with heat stroke.

Japanese media had reported that an engine failed prior to landing on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. But the head of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, Billy Chang, said that is not the case.

Chang says reports had spoken of crew members alerting the control tower of the failure of engine number two prior to landing. But, he says the control tower has since told his administration that the crew did not contact the tower while the plane was still in the air.

A spokesman for the Taipei-based China Airlines, Johnson Sun, told reporters in Taipei that a fire was noticed after the plane was on the ground.

Sun says that as the plane was taxiing to the gate, ground personnel noticed flames coming from the exterior of the plane, and notified crew members on board. At that time, he said, the crew began immediately evacuating the passengers to safety.

Television footage showed several explosions, at least one of which took place while passengers were still evacuating down emergency slides.

China Airlines officials say an oil leak may have caused an engine fire. But officials say that a complete investigation will need to be conducted to determine the cause. Terrorism has already been ruled out as a probable cause.

Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration has grounded 11 of China Airline's other Boeing 737-800s as well as two from its subsidiary Mandarin Airlines. On Monday afternoon, the administration sent personnel to Okinawa to assist in the investigation of the incident.

Monday's fire is a blow to China Airlines, which already has a poor safety record. It is the latest incident since a China Airlines 747 en route from Taipei to Hong Kong crashed in 2002, killing 225 people on board. More than 450 people died in China Airlines accidents in the 1990s.