A Delta plane returning to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) after pilots declared an engine emergency dumped thousands of gallons of fuel over land Tuesday afternoon. At least 56 children and adults reported minor skin and lung irritations across several schools, fire officials said.
Students and staff at Park Avenue Elementary were among those affected outdoors as fuel rained down on the playground, according to CBS Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Sky Cornell said 20 children and 11 adults were treated, but nobody was hospitalized. The school is located within the landing path of LAX, some 13 miles east of the airport in the city of Cudahy.
Several more students and adults at San Gabriel Avenue Elementary and Tweedy Elementary in South Gate, 93rd Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, and Graham Elementary in Inglewood were also treated on scene, CBS LA reported. Jordan High School was also affected, but nobody was treated for any injuries.
LA County Fire Department Inspector Henry Narvaez told The Associated Press that fuel had dissipated by the time it reached the ground. Cornell said nothing flammable remained in the air or on the ground.
Flight tracking website FlightAware showed Delta Air Lines Flight 89 to Shanghai, China, left LAX and circled back over Southern California before returning to the airport. The airliner said there were 149 customers and 16 crew members on board.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the flight declared an emergency shortly after departing LAX, returned to the airport and landed without incident. "There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major U.S. airport," the administration said. "These procedures call for fuel to be dumped over designated unpopulated areas, typically at higher altitudes so the fuel atomizes and disperses before it reaches the ground."
Delta said: "Shortly after takeoff, Flight 89 from LAX to Shanghai experienced an engine issue requiring the aircraft to return quickly to LAX. The aircraft landed safely after release of fuel, which was required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight."
Los Angeles Unified School District issued a statement saying "students and staff were on the playground at the time and may have been sprayed by fuel or inhaled fumes." Paramedics were immediately called, officials said, and anyone reporting skin irritation or breathing problems was treated.
"I was so scared," Marian Torres, an 11-year-old student, told CBS News. "We went inside and then my eyes started itching."
Some on social media captured what appeared to be the plane dumping fuel as it approached LAX in an attempt to reduce the plane's weight before it made a successful landing.
After takeoff, the pilots of the Boeing 777 received a notification of a possible compressor stall affecting its right engine. The pilots radioed air traffic control, declared an emergency and turned around. A compressor stall — or compressor stall warning — is a sign of an engine issue that typically prompts an engine shutdown.
Flight 89 was heading to Shanghai so it was loaded down with fuel and was well over the maximum safe landing weight. The pilots started dumping fuel at approximately 8,000 feet over water but then continued dumping fuel over land as the plane approached LAX.
The danger of landing heavy is that the landing gear could fail, the brakes could catch fire or pilots could not be able to stop in time. The plane landed without incident at LAX.
A former Boeing 777 captain told CBS News that he estimated the pilots would have likely dumped between 15,000-20,000 gallons of fuel. He also said that the pilots should have had time to safely circle and dump fuel over water at a higher altitude, and was surprised it was done at such a low altitude over land.
Kris Van Cleave and Danya Bacchus contributed to this report.