Relatives face grim mission to identify Madrid crash victims

Taken from afp.com

21/08/2008 19h46

Relatives of the victims of the Barajas airport crash arrive by bus at the IFEMA fairground
©AFP – Dani Pozo

MADRID (AFP) – Distraught relatives of the 153 victims of the Madrid airline disaster struggled Thursday to identify charred remains of their loved ones as investigators scoured the wreckage for clues.

Spanair reported an air intake valve was repaired just before its US-made MD-82 plane crashed on take-off at Madrid-Barajas airport on Wednesday, but there was no immediate indication it was related to the accident.

Spanish newspapers highlighted financial problems and cost-cutting measures at Spain’s second-largest carrier — which one paper said could have contributed to the accident.

A relative or friend of a victim of the Barajas airport crash arrives at the IFEMA fairground
©AFP – Dani Pozo

On board the aircraft were 162 passengers — including two babies and 20 other children — plus 10 crew, four of whom were travelling as passengers.

The government said most of the passengers were Spanish, but there were citizens of 11 other countries on board, including five Germans and two French.

Spanish media said more than half the passengers were residents of the Canary Islands, where the flight was headed.

Having returned to the terminal once with a technical problem, the jet was taking off when it veered to the right of the runway before breaking up in flames.

Transport Minister Magdalena Alvarez said the plane had got about 50 metres (160 feet) off the ground before it came down. She said 153 people were killed and 19 injured, with four in “very serious” condition.

The bodies were moved to a Madrid congress centre, where the 191 victims of the March 2004 Madrid train bombings had also been taken.

Relatives and friends, many brought on a special flight from the Canaries, were taken to the makeshift morgue to identify the remains, accompanied by psychologists.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said 39 bodies had been identified by mid-afternoon through fingerprints, and 15 of them had been handed over to their families.

She said most of the 153 bodies would require DNA tests as they were badly burned.

One of the 19 survivors recalled seeing bodies strewn around the burning wreckage.

“I lifted my head and all I saw were scattered bodies,” Ligia Palomino, a doctor, told El Pais newspaper.

Emergency Unit employees look at a section of ground at Madrid’s airport
©AFP – Dani Pozo

Palomino said she was only semi-conscious after the crash but woke up when a fuel tank exploded.

The authorities have not confirmed media reports quoting witnesses that the left engine was on fire during take-off.

Alvarez said the plane had taxied to the runway once, before turning back because of a technical problem. Spanair maintenance staff then cleared the aircraft for take-off.

The airline Thursday said the pilot had indicated an air intake fault, but the problem was fixed before the doomed take-off.

Asked by national radio whether the company may be negligent, Alvarez said: “I dare not say that.”

Funeral services leave the Almudena cemetery after carrying some victims of the Barajas airport crash
©AFP – Miguel Riopa

But Spanish media criticised the airline.

“The crisis at Spanair led to a tragedy with 153 dead,” said El Mundo’s front page. “The technical inspection by Spanair could have committed a fatal error.”

Spanair managing director Marcus Hedblom defended the company, saying that “everything we did with the aircraft was by the rules.”

The airline, owned by Scandinavian carrier SAS, recently proposed shedding almost a quarter of its 4,000 staff because of fuel price rises and reduced demand. Its pilots had threatened a strike over conditions.

The two black boxes were found and were to be analysed.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who visited the injured in hospital, promised an “exhaustive, rigorous and total investigation” by an independent commission.

A bus displays a black ribbon on its windscreen in Las Palmas
©AFP – Desiree Martin

Thousands of people held silent tributes to the victims in Madrid and other cities while three days of national mourning were declared.

At the Beijing Olympics, Spanish sailors Fernando Echavarri and Anton Paz donned black armbands after winning gold medals to honour the disaster dead.

The accident was Spain’s worst plane disaster since a Boeing 747 belonging to Colombian airline Avianca crashed in Madrid in 1983 killing 180 and the deadliest in Europe since a Russian Tupolev crashed in Ukraine in 2006 killing 170.

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