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Mexicana Flight Crashes, Killing All 166 Aboard URGENT

April 1, 1986 GMT

POMOCA, Mexico (AP) _ Search teams today removed bodies from the wreckage of a Mexican jet that smashed into a mountainside, killing all 166 people aboard. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said nine U.S. citizens were on the Mexicana Airlines Boeing 727.

″We can confirm that nine Americans were on the plane,″ said U.S. Embassy spokesman Vincent Hovanec in Mexico City. He said no identification of the bodies had been made yet, but reports from the airline, family and friends were that nine Americans held tickets for the flight and ″were indeed on the plane.″

Earlier reports put the number of U.S. citizens on the plane at five.

Officials said the remains of more than half the victims and the ″black box″ flight recorder were recovered.

The jet, en route from Mexico City to Los Angeles with stops in the Pacific resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, hit the 7,792-foot mountain known locally as El Carbon about 90 miles northwest of Mexico City shortly after takeoff Monday morning.

″Unfortunately, there are no survivors″ Mexicana spokesman Fernando Martinez Cortes said of the 158 passengers and eight crew aboard Flight 940.

Witnesses in this hamlet of 300 people at the foot of the hills said the plane exploded ″like thunder″ and was burning before it crashed.

″I heard two booms like thunder, one up and one down. I and some others, we climbed up the mountain and we were able to see only pieces of plane and a few dead thrown around here and there,″ said Ignacio Carrillo, who has a small farm nearby.

Angel Bolanos, 43, with his horse loaded with forage for his seven cows, said, ″It was 9 (a.m.) and a little bit more. I saw it. It fell burning. While it was flying, part of the plane came loose and fell and the other part also fell. When it fell it sounded like thunder, and when it broke it sounded like thunder. The part that fell caught fire and it was like a volcano.″

The cause of the crash was not known, but Mexicana said the pilot reported pressurization problems and sought permission to fly lower shortly before the plane went down.

Helicopters began taking bodies to a base camp set up in a field in Pomoca on Monday. The recovery operation was suspended at nightfall but resumed today.

Rescue workers were searching for bodies, putting the remains in bags on stretchers and then climbing 1,500 feet to a ridge near the top of the peak where only one helicopter can land at a time.

Ambulances in a small field at Pomoca took the bodies from the helicopters to Balbuena Hospital in the nearby community of Maravatio. From there, they will go to Morelia, 42 miles west of the crash, and then to Mexico City.

Officials working at the base camp said the remains of what were believed to be 89 victims had been recovered by 10 a.m.

Mexicana in Mexico City said the ″black box″ was recovered Monday afternoon and would be sent to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for analysis. The black box contains flight recorders that investigators use to help determine the cause of a plane crash.

Jorge Sanchez, a helicopter pilot who brought down six bodies, said the jetliner was ″in pieces ... The largest single piece was the tail, and everywhere there were bodies.″

Robert R. Crigler, manager of the Mexicana office in Los Angeles, said Monday night that five Americans and two Canadians were aboard the jet, but he could not identify them.

U.S. citizens believed booked on the flight included Christine Pittner and Tracy Bates, two teen-agers from suburban Buffalo, N.Y.; Robert B. Loeb, a Cleveland lawyer; and Debra Roth, a Cleveland junior high school teacher, relatives and friends said.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Vincent Hovanec in Mexico City said that U.S. officials at the crash site to aid in the identifications ″checked in this morning and said that many of the bodies are badly burned and dismembered and scattered over a wide area.″

No identification of the bodies has been made, he said.

Hovanec said airline officials reported 25 non-Hispanic surnames were on the passenger list, but the manifest did not list citizenship.

Three hangars were converted into makeshift morgues at the airport at Morelia, capital of Michoacan state.

Manuel Sosa de la Vega, Mexicana president, told Televisa television network he hoped all the bodies would be back in the capital today.

Jose Henonin, an airline spokesman in Mexico City, said in a telephone interview, ″The captain asked for permission to descend because they had problems about the pressurization of the plane.″

″That was the last time they heard from the captain, when he asked for authorization to descend 6,000 feet. He was flying at 26,000 feet.″

The Civil Aeronautics Agency’s transcript of conversations between Mexico City air traffic controllers and the pilot, Capt. Carlos Guadarrama Sistos, contained references to the plane losing altitude but not to pressurization problems. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

The airline said Sistos had logged 15,000 hours of flight time.

President Miguel de la Madrid ordered an investigation of the crash.

The Mexicana Airlines crash was the worst air disaster since a chartered DC-8 with eight crew that was carrying 248 U.S. servicemen home for Christmas from the Middle East crashed at Gander, Newfoundland, last Dec. 12. All aboard died.

The worst commercial aviation disaster occurred March 27, 1977, when 582 people were killed in a collision of two Boeing 747s operated by Pan American and KLM at the airport on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. The second worst disaster occurred Aug. 12 when a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 crashed into a mountain on a domestic flight, killing 520 people.