Brazilian Plane Crashes In Sao Paulo Kills 189

Published: Jul. 18, 2007 at 2:28 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 18, 2007 at 3:19 PM EDT
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SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) - The pilot of an airliner that burst into flames after trying to land on a short, rain-slicked runway apparently tried to take off again, barely clearing rush-hour traffic on a major highway. The death toll rose Wednesday to 189 and could climb higher.

The TAM airlines Airbus-320 was en route to Sao Paulo from Porto Alegre in southern Brazil on Tuesday when it skidded on the rain-slicked runway in Sao Paulo, barreled across a busy road and slammed into a gas station and TAM building.

The airline put the number of people aboard the plane at 186, and officials said three bodies of people killed on the ground had been recovered. There were fears of more dead on the ground, with 14 others taken to hospitals, where their conditions were not known.

"What appears to have happened is that he (the pilot) didn't manage to land and he tried to take off again," said Capt. Marcos, a fire department spokesman who would only identify himself by rank and first name in accordance with department guidelines.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning following Brazil's second major air disaster in less than a year. In September, a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 and an executive jet collided over the Amazon rain forest, killing 154 people in what had been the deadliest air disaster to date.

Emergency workers had recovered that 56 bodies from wreckage of the TAM airliner by early Wednesday as well as the TAM airlines Airbus-320's "black box" flight data recorder, according to the Web site of O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper.

Sao Paulo state Gov. Jose Serra said the hopes of finding any of the 176 people aboard alive "are practically nil," since the temperature inside the plane reached 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit.

Witness Elias Rodrigues Jesus, a TAM worker, told The Associated Press he was walking near the site when he saw the jet explode in between a gas station and a Tam building.

"All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook," Jesus said. "I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur."

The runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport has been repeatedly criticized for being too short, and two planes slipped off it in rainy weather just a day earlier, though no one was injured in either incident.

Pilots sometimes refer to Congonhas as the "aircraft carrier." They say they are instructed to touch down in the first 1,000 feet of runway, or do a go-around if they overshoot the immediate landing zone.

The Congonhas runway is 6,365 feet, compared with a 7,003-foot runway at New York's LaGuardia Airport, which accommodates similar planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airline released a list of most of the people on the flight. "Tam expresses its most profound condolences to the relatives and friends of the passengers who were on Flight 3054," the company said.

Before the list was released, Lamir Buzzanelli said his 41-year-old son, Claudemir, an engineer, had called him from Porto Alegre to say he was in the plane and about to return from a business trip.

"My hopes are not too high because I've been calling him on his cell phone, and all I get is his voice mail," Buzzanelli said, his eyes tearing up.

The crash highlights the country's increasing aviation woes. In September, a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest, causing the passenger jet to crash, killing 154 people.

Since then, there have been questions about the country's underfunded air traffic control systems, deficient radar system and the airlines' ability to cope with a surge in travelers. Controllers - concerned about being made scapegoats - have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing lengthy delays and cancelations.

Presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach said no cause would be immediately released because it was premature to do so.

"His worries now are with the victims and the relatives of the victims. That is main concern," the spokesman said of Silva.

The accident happened during heavy rain, and critics have said for years that such an accident was possible at the airport because its runway is too short for large planes landing in rainy weather.

In 1996, a TAM airlines Fokker-100 skidded off the runway at Congonhas airport and down a street before erupting in a fireball. The crash killed all 96 people on board and three on the ground.

A federal court in February of this year briefly banned takeoffs and landings of three types of large jets at the airport because of safety concerns at Congonhas airport, which handles huge volumes of flights for the massive domestic Brazilian air travel market.

But an appeals court overruled the ban, saying it was too harsh because it would have severe economic ramifications, and that there were not enough safety concerns to prevent the planes from landing and taking off the airport.

On Monday, two smaller planes slipped off the airport's runway in rainy weather, but no one was injured.

In France, Airbus said it was sending five specialists to Brazil to help investigate the crash. The company will provide "full technical assistance" to France's bureau for accident investigations and to Brazilian authorities.

The single-aisle, twin-engine plane, delivered in 1998, had logged about 20,000 flight hours in some 9,300 flights, the European plane maker said.