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Cudahy, Calif. – U.S. authorities will investigate why an airliner with engine trouble dumped jet fuel over a densely populated area near Los Angeles while making an emergency return to the airport, dousing dozens of schoolchildren in a smelly vapor.

Delta Air Lines Flight 89 to Shanghai, a Boeing 777-200 with 181 passengers and crew on board, turned back to Los Angeles International Airport only minutes after taking off Tuesday.

The pilot reported a compressor stall in the right engine – damage that can happen through malfunction or when a foreign object such as a bird hits an engine. The damage can reduce engine thrust or lead to a fire in the worst cases.

Planes can take off weighted down for their journey, but if they must land early because of an emergency, it can be necessary to dump fuel so that the aircraft is lighter to avoid damage.

Air traffic control asked the crew if they wanted to return to LAX immediately or linger over the ocean “to hold and burn fuel,” according to a recording of the radio communications.

“We’re going to go ahead,” the pilot or co-pilot responds. “We’ve got it back under control. … We’re not critical.”

“OK, so you don’t need to hold or dump fuel or anything like that?” the controller asks.

“Ah, negative,” the pilot responds.

But the plane did later dump fuel as it circled back across greater Los Angeles to approach the airport.

The fuel sprayed out in two streams from the wings and fell at midday in the city of Cudahy and nearby parts of Los Angeles County, about 13 miles east of the airport.

The vapor directly landed on three Los Angeles Unified School District campuses and about 20 others experienced some effects from the odor of fuel discharged at higher altitudes, the district said in a statement.

The fuel, described by fire officials as a vapor, caused minor skin and lung irritation to 56 children and adults but nobody was taken to the hospital and the only decontamination required was soap and water, officials said.

All the schools were cleaned overnight and reopened Wednesday.

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