Jet Crashes in Honduras; 131 Known Dead
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ A Honduran jet carrying 146 people broke apart in the air and crashed in flames into a mountain Saturday as it prepared to land, and at least 131 people were killed, officials said.
Twenty survivors were initially rescued and scores more were trapped in the burning wreckage, according to Red Cross volunteers and firefighters. However, Raul Bonilla, general manager of TAN-SAHSA airline, said later in the day that only 15 people had been confirmed as survivors. He said 131 people had been confirmed dead.
A partial list provided by TAN-SAHSA showed that at least 11 Americans were on board the jet, which stopped in Nicaragua en route from Costa Rica to Honduras.
However, U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark Jacobs said about 20 Americans were on board.
Bonilla said three Americans had survived. He identified two of them as Eugene Van Dicke and Curtis Shaffer, but he had no hometowns. He said an American woman had also survived, but she was unconscious and officials had not determined her identity.
The cause of the crash was not immediately reported. Honduran officials said it was the nation’s worst air disaster.
The pilot, Raul Argueta, survived with serious bruises and burns. His relatives said he told them he tried to land the plane on a small soccer field near Las Mesitas, about 25 miles south of Tegucigalpa. They did not say why he attempted an emergency landing.
″After exhaustively analyzing the situation, we can be sure that a total of 146 people were aboard the plane,″ Bonilla said late Saturday. He said there were 138 passengers and eight crew members.
Earlier, the airline had said 164 people were aboard. Nicaraguan officials said at least 65 Nicaraguans were aboard.
Tegucigalpa morgue director Edgardo Murillo said the dead included Honduran Labor Minister Armando Blanco Paniagua; Jose Ricardo Fasquell, chairman of Honduras’ College of Forestry Engineers; and Fanny Sanchez, a daughter of Defense Minister Col. Wilfredo Sanchez.
Also killed was Mario Rodriguez Cubero, an official in the Costa Rican president’s office, that country’s embassy said.
Rosario Ubeda, one of the few survivors able to talk to reporters, said she remembered almost nothing of the crash. ″I heard strange noises and shouting. I remember nothing (after that),″ she said.
Ms. Ubeda, a 40-year-old Nicaraguan, was interviewed at the Medical School Hospital in Tegucigalpa. A doctor said she was in serious condition with fractures of the pelvis, both legs, and an arm.
″What we’re seeing here is tremendous ... a really hellish scene,″ said Rolando Sarmiento, a reporter for Radio HRN. ″It’s a horrible scene. The bodies are all over the place. There are at least 15 bodies completely charred.″
The TAN-SAHSA airlines Boeing 727-200 crashed into a 6,000-foot peak called Cerro Hules at 7:45 a.m. in Las Tablitas, said Gen. Humberto Regalado Hernandez, the armed forces chief.
Control tower employees at Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa said unusually strong winds were blowing as Flight No. 414 tried to land.
A resident of Las Tablitas said the plane was on fire before it hit the ground.
″I saw the plane coming down in flames ... and then I heard a loud noise in the distance,″ the witness, Pedro Martinez, told Radio HRN.
Maj. Alejandro Arguello, the Nicaraguan civil aeronautics chief, said ″Apparently part of the fuselage, the roof of the plane, tore off.″
Bonilla said the plane’s ″black box″ flight recorder had been located. He said officials from the International Aviation Organization would open it Sunday ″and find out what really happened.″
The worst previous airplane disaster in Honduras occurred in 1987, when 60 people died in the crash of a Honduran air force Hercules C-130.
A partial passenger list provided by Alfonso Valladares, the TAN-SAHSA reservation manager, included among the Americans on board: Robert Heyr, Marie Apodaca, Edward Apodaca, Connie Montealegre, Daniel Yurista, Tony Friedrich, Lea Browning, A. Absevans and Gregory Pagla. It provided no hometowns.
Arguello, speaking at a news conference in Managua, said he was told that Pagla was an American diplomat.
Lou Falino, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Managua, could not confirm that.
Red Cross workers said most of the people rescued suffered serious burns.
Radio stations broadcast bulletins from hospitals urgently asking for donations of morphine, pain killers, antibiotics and other medicines.
The plane was on a regular run from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to Toncontin Airport with a stop in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.
Honduras and Nicaragua declared periods of national mourning. In Managua, officials issued emergency visas to relatives of victims.
In the last two years, there have been a number of incidents involving Boeing jets losing engines, wheels, or parts of their fuselage. Most were blamed on metal fatigue, which can affect older jetliners.
Boeing spokesman Tom Cole said in Seattle the plane that crashed Saturday was delivered to Continental Airlines, apparently in 1968. Cole said Continental may have leased it to TAN-SAHSA or it could have been leased through an intermediary.
On Dec. 26, 1988, an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727, also built in the late 1960s, made an emergency landing in Charleston, W.Va., after a 14-inch hole opened in its fuselage at 31,000 feet. There were no injuries, but the incident led to a fleetwide inspection.
An American Airlines Boeing 727 made a belly landing at Dallas-Fort Worth on Sept. 21, 1988, after metal fatigue in its landing gear prevented the pilot from opening the wheel well door. Three people were injured in the evacuation.
A flight attendant was killed and 61 people were injured April 28, 1988, when a portion of the fuselage of an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 built in the 1960s ripped off at 24,000 feet over Hawaii.