Probe begins after Boeing 737 slides off runway into Florida river

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Boeing 737 aircraft sits in shallow water of the St Johns River after it slid off the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida

A Miami Air, Boeing 737 aircraft from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sits in shallow water of the St Johns River after it slid off the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, U.S., May 3, 2019. U.S. Navy/Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Monica R. Hopper/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Federal investigators on Saturday began searching for what caused a Boeing jetliner with 143 people on board to slide off a runway into a shallow river while landing at a Jacksonville, Florida military base during a thunderstorm, injuring 21 people.

The Boeing 737-800 chartered by the U.S. military was arriving from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba with 136 passengers and seven crew members when it slid into the St. Johns river at the end of the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville on Friday night, authorities said.

No one was badly hurt and the 21 people taken to a hospital were listed in good condition, the local sheriff’s office said.

The National Transportation Safety Board posted a photograph on Twitter on Saturday showing NTSB investigator Dan Boggs holding an orange flight data recorder recovered from the aircraft.

Earlier in the day, the agency said 16 investigators were arriving in Jacksonville.

The plane, chartered from Miami Air International, was attempting to land at about 9:40 p.m. local time amid thunder and lightning when it slid off the runway and came to rest in the shallow water of the river, authorities and passengers said.

“It is a miracle. We could be talking about a different story,” Capt. Michael Connor, commanding officer at the Jacksonville station, said at a news conference on Saturday.

“There’s a lot to say about the professionalism of the folks that helped the passengers off the airplane … because it could have very well been worse.”

Active-duty military members, civilian government employees and their dependents were on the jetliner, Connor told CNN.

The military base is on the western bank of the St. Johns River about 8 miles (12.87 km) south of central Jacksonville, about 350 miles (563.27 km) north of Miami.

Miami Air International is a charter airline operating a fleet of the Boeing 737-800, different from the 737 MAX 8 aircraft that has been grounded following two fatal crashes involving that plane.

Representatives of the airline did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

A spokesman for Boeing Co. said that the company was aware of the incident and was gathering information.

The charter company is contracted by the military for its twice-weekly “rotator” roundtrip service between the U.S. mainland and Guantanamo Bay, said Bill Dougherty, a spokesman for the Jacksonville base.

It flies every Tuesday and Friday from the Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia to the Jacksonville air station and on to Cuba. It then flies back to Virginia with a stop again at Jacksonville, Dougherty said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Steve Gorman and Tim Reid in Los Angeles, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Diane Craft)

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