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Passengers dodged chunks of dirt, ball of fire

By
TERRY BOTE

DENVER -- A DC-9 jetliner that crashed on takeoff Sunday at Stapleton International Airport teetered in the air, smacked the snowy earth and broke into pieces as passengers screamed in horror, one of the survivors said.

'The plane took off, tipped right, then tipped left,' said Libby Smoot, 36, of Ketchum, Idaho. 'We knew exactly what was happening. We knew we were in trouble. It was terrible.'

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'We were one of the first ones off the back of the plane,' she said. 'A lot of people were screaming, and on the other side, a ball of flame went right by.'

There had been conflicting reports about a fire on the plane. A Continental spokesman said there was no fire, but several witnesses reported seeing a 'ball of flame' that went out quickly.

Smoot and traveling companion Tom Denker, 38, also of Ketchum, were sitting in the back row of the plane. The two were released from Denver General Hospital about 7 p.m. and were going to stay with a friend in Denver.

Smoot said the plane appeared to leave the runway and then 'tipped' to the right. She speculated the pilot seemed to 'over-compensate' and the plane tipped back left.

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When the plane skidded down the runway, dirt flew into the passenger compartment as the fuselage broke into three pieces.

'We were eating dirt,' Smoot said. 'I was petrified.'

She said she kept thinking to herself, 'I hope I get out of this one.'

Denker and Smoot both had minor cuts and no serious injuries.

'We were very, very lucky,' she said.

Both lost their shoes in the crash and left the hospital in stocking feet.

Another survivor left the hospital in a cab about 7:30 p.m., followed by two more who were escorted by hospital security to a private vehicle.

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