Image: PLane in pieces.
Richard Garcia  /  AP
A plane that crashed on landing broke into three pieces at the airport on San Andres island in Colombia on Monday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 8/16/2010 3:06:10 PM ET 2010-08-16T19:06:10

A Boeing 737 jetliner with 131 passengers aboard crashed on landing and broke into three pieces at a Colombian island in the Caribbean early Monday. The region's governor said it was a miracle that only one person died.

Colombian Air Force Col. David Barrero said officials were investigating reports the plane, operated by the local airline Aires, had been hit by lightning before crashing at 1:49 a.m. (3:49 a.m. EDT) while landing at San Andres Island, a resort island of 78,000 people about 120 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast.

San Andres Gov. Pedro Gallardo said 125 passengers and six crew members had been aboard, but the only person killed was Amar Fernandez de Barreto, 65. At least five people were reported injured.

"It was a miracle and we have to give thanks to God," the governor said.

The state government said in an e-mail that passengers aboard the Aires plane that left Bogota about midnight included eight U.S. citizens and four Brazilians. 

Passengers said the pilot had announced an impending landing and all seemed normal as the plane descended through rain.

But suddenly it hit short and then slid onto the runway on its belly as the fuselage fractured. It wound up on one end of the runway, crumpled and in pieces, as passengers scrambled or were helped to safety.

'I felt an impact'
"We were fine until they announced that we were about to land," said passenger Heriberto Rua, who was on his way to San Andres for vacation with his wife and five daughters.

"Then I felt an impact. My seat was knocked loose but I was able to unbuckle myself and get two of my daughters out."

Firefighters quickly doused the beginnings of a fire on a wing, said police Gen. Orlando Paez.

Ninety-nine passengers were taken to the Amor de Patria Hospital on San Andres, said the hospital director, Dr. Robert Sanchez. He said only four suffered major injuries.

"It's incredible. For the dimension (of the accident), there should be more," he said.

Sanchez said an initial examination indicated that Fernandez de Barreto may have died of a heart attack.

Barrero, commander of the Caribbean Air Group, said by telephone from San Andres that "the skill of the pilot kept the plane from colliding with the airport."

He said the cause of the accident was uncertain. "You can't speculate. Lightning? A gust of wind? The investigation will say."

The airline, Aerovias de Integracion Regional SA, said in a Twitter posting that it has 20 planes, including 10 Boeing 737-100 planes.

Probe into cause
It said it was "working and investigating with the aeronautical authorities to determine the causes of what happened."

Barrero said part of the 7,800-foot runway had been closed because parts of the plane were still scattered across it. But enough was usable that air ambulances would be able to land.

Paez said by telephone that a group of police officers who had been waiting at the airport for the plane to take them back to the Colombian mainland aided in rescuing the victims.

Col. Hector Carrascal of Colombian Civil Aeronautics said five U.S. citizens aboard the plane suffered minor injuries. He identified them as: David Bellino, Carolina Calvete, Donald Henderson, Valentina Hurtado Lopez and Catherine Schmidt.

The fact so many passengers survived is a testament to the "excellent service of our fire squads and the serach and rescue teams of the island,"  Carrascal said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Incredible survival stories after Colombia crash

  1. Transcript of: Incredible survival stories after Colombia crash

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We have more now tonight on the remarkable story of survival we first told you about here last night, the crash of that Colombian jetliner, a 737 with 131 people on board. It broke apart into three big pieces on landing, but just one person died as a result. It happened on Colombia 's San Andres Island , and our own Kerry Sanders has an incredible account from some of the survivors.

    KERRY SANDERS reporting: Wreckage from Aires Flight 8250 still sits on the airport's only runway tonight. Officials say it will remain there until both Colombian and US crash investigators finish their preliminary work. The one passenger death was ruled a heart attack. Among the survivors, 48-year-old David Bellino and his wife, Carolina , from Flowery Branch , Georgia . These pictures, snapped on a cell phone and shared with NBC News , both in the hospital, side by side, fingers pointed to God.

    Mr. DAVID BELLINO: It's a miracle because there's no way I can explain a plane breaking up into four pieces at that speed.

    SANDERS: Passengers say the flight from Bogota was uneventful until moments before landing, at least 19 lightning strikes near the airport. Crash experts say one brilliant flash may have momentarily blinded the pilots, causing them to descend too quickly. The jet slammed into the ground 300 feet shy of the runway. In the emergency row exit over the wing, David and Carolina . As they went out the door and tried to get away from the flames and leaking fuel, David 's fractured vertebrae stopped him in his tracks.

    Mr. BELLINO: I walked about 15 more feet as fast as I could, and my legs gave out. My wife said, 'No, we got to go. It's going to blow up,' and I said, 'I can't move my legs.' So I was on the ground and I was trying to crawl, and she was drag -- trying to drag me. And I said, 'This is as far as I can go because I'm hurting and my legs won't work.' It just felt like heavy weight.

    SANDERS: Doctors tell David Bellino they believe his paralysis is temporary. Already feeling has returned to his feet. As for his wife, Carolina , she's seven weeks pregnant.

    Ms. CAROLINA BELLINO: I was just like, 'I lost my baby,' you know. But they did the ultrasound, and the doctor said it's like nothing happened to it. 'You're fine, your baby's fine.' It was really a miracle.

    SANDERS: Flight 8250, an incredible story of survival. Kerry Sanders , NBC News, Miami.

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