Sao Paulo: A Brazilian airliner crashed and exploded in flames on Tuesday (18 July) at Brazil’s busiest airport, and around 200 people were feared dead in the country’s second major air disaster in less than a year.
Rescue crews pulled 45 bodies from the wreckage and said none of the 176 people on board the Airbus A320 could have survived. One rescue crew leader said as many as 200 people may have died, including casualties on the ground, the Folha news agency reported.
The plane, flying from Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, lost control on landing at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport, which is known for slippery runways and has become a symbol of the country’s chaotic air transport system.
The passenger jet skidded off the rain-soaked landing strip and shot over a bustling avenue just below, slamming into a gas station and cargo terminal where people were working.
“The plane came spinning and passed over our heads at the level of the street lights,” said Luis Santos, who was in his car at the station at the time. “When it hit the ground it exploded sending pieces all around.”
Dozens of ambulances raced to the crash site, where the plane’s tail stuck out of the cargo terminal in flames as firefighters tried to put out the blaze, which spread to neighboring buildings and threatened houses.
Government officials said that at least 11 people were being treated for injuries at hospitals, where three died.
The plane, flown by Brazil’s No. 1 airline TAM Linhas Aereas, was carrying 170 passengers and six crew when it rammed into the carrier’s own cargo building.
In September, 154 people were killed when a Brazilian Boeing 737 clipped wings with a private jet and crashed in the Amazon jungle in what was the country’s worst air accident.
That disaster thrust Brazil’s aviation system into disarray as air traffic controllers, who felt they were being blamed for the accident, went on strike to protest poor pay and what they called spotty radar and radio coverage.
Flights are often cancelled in the crowded system, angry fliers have stormed onto runways to complain about delays and prosecutors have denounced directors at the national airports authority for taking bribes from contractors.
The TAM accident is likely to pressure President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to swiftly improve air safety. Critics say he has been too slow to address nagging aviation woes.
“How long will this go on? Are we going to have to wait for a third accident for the government to do something?” said Arthur Virgilio, a senator from a leading opposition party.
A ranking member of Virgilio’s party was on the TAM flight that crashed, an aide told Reuters.
Congonhas airport, located in the heart of South America’s largest city, recently repaved one of its runways after officials tried to ban wide-bodied jets from the airport on fears they could skid off its short landing strips.
Some aviation experts questioned if the runway had been sufficiently grooved to drain water in heavy rains.
“The runway was reopened because of popular pressure,” Gianfranco Beting, an aviation consultant, said in a TV interview. “This was a tragedy waiting to happen.”
On Monday (16 July), a small plane also spun off the runway in a heavy downpour but no one was hurt.