TORONTO (CP) -- More than 300 people escaped with their lives, some stumbling to a nearby highway to flag down passing commuters, after an Air France passenger jet skidded off the runway Tuesday and then burst into flames during a fierce thunderstorm at Pearson International Airport.
Only 24 of the 297 passengers and 12 crew members aboard Air France Flight 358 from Paris sustained any injuries, most of them minor, authorities said.
''We are very satisfied that there were no major injuries,'' said Steve Shaw, a spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, which manages the international airport.
Many passengers, including one of the co-pilots, escaped the wreckage in the moments after the crash and climbed on to the shoulder of Highway 401, Canada's busiest highway, in order to wave down motorists, said Peel police Sgt. Glyn Griffiths.
''We located the co-pilot on Highway 401,'' Griffiths said.
Everyone on board the A-340 jet, which is capable of carrying 350 passengers, was able to get off the plane before it caught fire.
''The passengers were able to clear the aircraft before the fire broke out, but that's an unconfirmed report,'' Shaw said.
Several area hospitals were on high alert as they prepared for an onslaught of injuries. One nine-month-old baby was taken to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, but there was no word on the state of the baby's injuries.
Flames and black smoke could be seen shooting from the downed plane's broken fuselage, a wingtip jutting above the trees, moments after it crashed at the end of the runway amid lightning strikes and driving rain at 4:03 p.m.
Black smoke billowed across the landscape, obscuring the view for passing drivers as the acrid smell of burning jet fuel hung heavy in the air, even several kilometres away.
''All I did was run like crazy,'' passenger Roel Bramar told CBC Newsworld. ''I was the second one off the plane and everyone was running like crazy. It was full. Totally full.''
Bramar said he saw lightning in the sky as the plane was descending.
''Just as we landed, the lights turned off and that's unusual,'' he said. ''The captain wanted to lower the plane as quickly as possible.''
Glenn Schiller, a passenger in a plane that had already landed on the tarmac, watched the scene unfold.
''Looking out the window to the back of my aircraft, a thick, black billow of smoke began,'' Schiller told Toronto television station CP24. ''Emergency vehicles are flying around a couple thousand metres away across on the runway.''
Schiller said the pilot of his aircraft told passengers there was ''a landing incident.''
''At the time the rain was coming down sideways,'' he said. ''It was a vicious, vicious thunderstorm.''
Thunderstorms create the possibility of wind shear _ the sudden, dangerous air currents that can push an aircraft into the ground during takeoff and landing.
Smoke billowed from a wooded area near the highway as emergency crews sped to the scene and commuters on their way home from work became snared in a massive traffic jam. At one point, another huge plume of smoke emerged from the wreckage, but it wasn't clear whether it was from an explosion.
A row of emergency vehicles lined up behind the wreck, and a fire truck sprayed the flames with water and foam.
Within minutes of the crash, with scant details about the injuries, the number of passengers and circumstances of the crash available, the spectacle was being broadcast live on television in Canada and the United States, much of it with the help of automated Ministry of Transportation cameras mounted to monitor the flow of highway traffic.
Police said the plane was attempting to land when it ran into trouble in a driving rain. Lightning strikes were also spotted in the area.
At least nine flights scheduled to land at Pearson were diverted to other airports in Hamilton and Ottawa, officials said.