Holiday flight ends in inferno

Taken from http://www.smh.com.au

Tracy Wilkinson in Madrid
August 22, 2008

IT WAS a troubled flight from the beginning. One attempt at take-off was aborted. Departure was delayed by more than an hour.

Passengers, many of them parents travelling with their young children, were grumpy and hot, eager to get on with it, to begin their holidays in the Canary Islands.

Several used their mobile phones to call relatives and report the problems. Finally, they said by phone, the flight was going to take off.

It tried. But at 2.45 local time on a hot, clear afternoon, seconds after Spanair flight JK5022 accelerated down a new runway at Madrid’s Barajas Airport and began to lift off, the jet jerked to the right and ploughed into a tree-covered ravine. The fuselage broke into two pieces, maybe more, according to witnesses, and burst into flames.

At least 153 people were killed in the deadliest accident at the airport in 25 years. Nineteen people, including two children, survived.

“There is nothing left of the plane; it is totally burned,” said a civil guard officer. “It’s the closest to hell I’ve ever seen.”

Officials from Spanair, Spain’s second largest carrier, said it was too early to speculate on what caused the 15-year-old McDonnell Douglas MD-82 to crash. Sergio Allart, the airline’s commercial director, said the plane had passed a routine inspection in January, and he could not speculate on the cause of the crash.

Spain’s Secretary of State for Communication, Nieves Goicoechea, ruled out terrorism, saying there was “no doubt that it was an accident”.The investigation will reportedly focus on an engine that apparently caught on fire as the plane took off.

A witness, Ramon Garcia Gallardo, said: “We had just landed at Barajas and were taxiing … when my wife pointed out a ball of flames at the end of the runway.”

Scores of ambulances, fire engines and other rescuers descended on the site, while helicopters poured fire-retardant spray on the wreckage. White and grey smoke billowed into the air, visible for kilometres.

Rescuers dragged bodies from the wreckage throughout the afternoon and the handful of survivors, many burned and with broken bones, were rushed to hospitals.

Some survivors had been thrown from the plane by the impact and landed in a stream, where the water shielded them from burns, rescuers said. Ervigio Corral, head of emergency rescue services, said although some survivors were able to walk away from the accident, emergency workers encountered a grim scene of widely scattered corpses, many of them children.

A government spokesman, Francisco Granados, first said 26 survivors were found, but the number was later lowered to 19. There were discrepancies over the number of people on board, but authorities eventually agreed that at least 153 people had died.

The flight was headed for Las Palmas, a popular summer holiday spot in the Canary Islands. There were many families on the plane, from Germany and other parts of northern Europe. No Australians are believed to have been aboard.

Tearful and stunned family members at airports in Madrid and in Las Palmas were taken aside to to await confirmation of their relatives’ fate.

One woman, speaking at a Madrid hospital, said her twin sister had survived after being thrown from the plane. She had broken ribs and was undergoing surgery but was otherwise fine, said the woman, who gave only her first name, Fernanda.

The Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, interrupted his summer holiday to return to Madrid, where a makeshift morgue was set up at the city’s main convention centre. Relatives began arriving on Wednesday night to identify bodies, though many were burned beyond recognition.

“The Government is overwhelmed, very affected, as are all Spanish citizens, by this tragedy,” Mr Zapatero said in a brief television address.

Spanair had been suffering from a number of setbacks, including heavy debt, declining revenue and orders from the parent company, Scandinavia Airline Systems, to cut 1000 jobs and eliminate routes.

Earlier on Wednesday Spanair pilots had threatened to go on strike to protest at cutbacks. They said management was forcing cabin crews and maintenance staff to work overtime. SAS has been trying unsuccessfully to sell the money-losing carrier.

Los Angeles Times; Telegraph, London; AAP

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