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Polish monk on threatened flight thanks God, pilot

Staff of the Frederic Chopin airport in Warsaw, Poland, prepare to move a Boeing 767 of Polish LOT airlines to unblock one of the airport's two runways and allow for air traffic on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. The plane on a flight from Newark, U.S., with 231 people on board, made a safe emergency landing on its belly on Tuesday after its landing gear failed to open. Staff of the Frederic Chopin airport in Warsaw, Poland, prepare to move a Boeing 767 of Polish LOT airlines to unblock one of the airport's two runways and allow for air traffic on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. The plane on a flight from Newark, U.S., with 231 people on board, made a safe emergency landing on its belly on Tuesday after its landing gear failed to open. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
By Monika Scislowska
Associated Press / November 3, 2011

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WARSAW, Poland—A Roman Catholic friar aboard the Boeing plane that made an emergency landing in Poland says he gripped a tiny lock of hair of the recently beatified Pope John Paul II as he prayed for the passengers' survival -- but credits the pilot as much as God in averting a disaster.

Father Piotr Chyla told The Associated press Thursday that he made the sign of the cross and whispered final absolution for all the 231 people on board while the pilot -- who has attained hero status -- guided the plane to the ground without wheels after its landing gear failed to deploy.

Chyla says he now credits God, as well as Capt. Tadeusz Wrona and his crew, for the safe landing that some in Poland have hailed as miraculous.

Chyla's story emerged two days after the drama riveted the predominantly Catholic country, with many still processing their emotions as the event was replayed over and over in the media.

Warsaw's international airport is back in full operation after the emergency landing shut it down for around 30 hours. Officials, meanwhile, are focusing investigations on trying to determine why the landing gear on the flight from Newark, New Jersey, failed to open.

Passengers have described the landing as so smooth they thought it was normal -- at least until they saw smoke, small flames and sparks rising from the plane. Emergency workers doused the plane and nobody was hurt.

Chyla says he is not saying the safe landing was a miracle, "but one cannot exclude that God helped" in saving everyone.

"We should put together the human dimension -- the excellent pilot, the professional cabin crew and the ground staff -- together with the Godly dimension," he said.

"There could have been many outside factors that could have prevented a safe landing, like wind," he added.

He said that as he prayed he gripped a tiny lock of hair belonging to the late John Paul II, the much-loved Polish pope who was beatified in May, and relics of Gianna Beretta Molla, a 20th century Italian saint.

Chyla refused to say where he got the hair, however, relics are a common object of veneration for many Catholics. A vial of John Paul's blood, for instance, was placed in the altar of a new church near Krakow earlier this year, serving as a focal point of prayer.

Members of the cabin crew also gave credit to the passengers for obeying instructions, staying calm and evacuating the plane in just over one minute.

But the flight attendants, speaking at a news conference in Warsaw, said the landing was very emotional, even for themselves.

"It was after we carried out all the duties and sat down for the landing that it came to me that these could be the last minutes of my life," said flight attendant Grzegorz Pietrzyk. "That was the most difficult moment."

"I was thinking about my family, my children, my wife, my brother and I wanted very much to see them again," Pietrzyk said.

The cost of closure to Warsaw's Frederic Chopin airport is around 2 million zlotys ($620,000) and disrupted the travel of thousands, airport director Michal Marzec said. He said the airport usually handles about 30,000 passengers a day at this time of the year.

The State Commission on Aircraft Accident Investigation and Warsaw prosecutors have said they are holding separate investigations into the cause of the malfunctioning of the plane, which underwent full maintenance in March.

LOT has said that the 14-year-old plane -- among the youngest in the airline's 52-plane fleet -- suffered "a central hydraulic system failure," that caused all three sections of the landing gear -- the nose gear and the two main underwing gears -- to fail. Such a complete undercarriage failure was unprecedented for a Boeing 767 and highly unusual overall, according to aviation data and experts.

LOT President Marcin Pirog said technicians were able to release the undercarriage from the cabin on Wednesday, but stressed it was too early to say what the problem on the flight was.

He said the plane was in better condition than could have been expected and it could possibly re-enter service. Meanwhile the airline was seeking to lease a plane to replace the grounded aircraft.

Pirog said all LOT Boeing planes will go through tests in the coming weeks.

Among the passengers who saw their travel disrupted by the airport's closure were dozens of rabbis from across Europe who had gathered in Warsaw for the largest such gathering in Poland since the nation's Jewish community was virtually wiped out in the Holocaust.

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Associated Press writer Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.