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Seats upright please

By Lester Holt, NBC News anchor

It was just a little over a month ago I traveled to the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) to do a story for the TODAY show on the keys to surviving a plane crash. I was placed in a passenger seat of a 747, instructed on how to position myself for impact (my head and arms braced on the seat back in front of me), and then the cabin was immediately filled with thick smoke. With practically zero visibility I had to make my way to an exit and jump down the emergency slide to safety. I was told in a real burning airplane, I'd have -- at most -- two minutes to escape. When I heard about last night's Continental Airlines 737 accident in Denver, in which all 115 people escaped a burning plane alive, my thoughts immediately turned back to that demonstration and what I learned.

Know where the exits are, and even take the time to count the number of seat backs between you and the closest exit. Trust me, you won't be able to see through the smoke, though emergency floor lighting will also help point the way. Don't try and grab your bags. It will cost you precious seconds. And listen to the flight attendant's pre-takeoff briefing -- even if you fly all the time. I log close to 100,000 air miles a year, but sometimes don't realize, for example, whether I'm on a 737-700, or a 737-800, or an A319 versus an A320. They look pretty much the same at first glance, but depending on which version of those two airplane families you're on, there might be two over-wing exits, or four. And those emergency slides? Some exits on some planes have them, others don't. You may be climbing down a wing to safety, or on one family of planes, even down a stairway under the tail. Knowing the details counts when you have two minutes to live.

The folks at the FAA's CAMI lab in Oklahoma City study airplane crashes for a living, so they can find ways to make airplane cabins safer. They will no doubt learn a lot from the survivors of last night's accident. What they already know however is that the majority of commercial airplane accidents are survivable -- especially for passengers who take the time to familiarize themselves with their surroundings before the plane leaves the gate.

On Nightly News tonight we'll have the latest on last night's Denver accident, as well as the blast of winter striking from Seattle to Chicago to Boston.

I hope you'll be able to join us.