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Toll in Brazil plane crash could climb past 189

The pilot of an airliner that burst into flames after trying to land on a short, rain-slicked runway apparently tried to take off again, barely clearing rush-hour traffic on a major highway. The death toll rose Wednesday to 189 and could climb higher.
Firemen carry the body of a victim of the crash of a TAM airlines Airbus A320 that slid off the runway of Congonhas airport
Fire fighters carry the body of a victim of the crash of a TAM airlines Airbus A320 at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on Wednesday morning.Rickey Rogers / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The pilot of an airliner that burst into flames after trying to land on a short, rain-slicked runway apparently tried to take off again, barely clearing rush-hour traffic on a major highway. The death toll rose Wednesday to 189 and could climb higher.

The TAM airlines Airbus-320 flight that originated in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil on Tuesday cleared the airport fence at the end of the runway and the busy highway but slammed into a gas station and a TAM building, causing an inferno.

The 6,362-foot runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport has been repeatedly criticized as dangerously short. Two planes slipped off it in rainy weather just a day earlier. Pilots call it the “aircraft carrier” — it’s so short and surrounded by heavily populated neighborhoods that they’re told to take off again and fly around if they overshoot the first 1,000 feet of runway.

By contrast, New York’s LaGuardia Airport has a 7,003-foot runway that accommodates similar planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

A federal court in February of this year briefly banned takeoffs and landings of three types of large jets at the airport because of safety concerns at Congonhas airport, which handles huge volumes of flights for the massive domestic Brazilian air travel market.

But an appeals court overruled the ban, saying it was too harsh because it would have severe economic ramifications, and that there were not enough safety concerns to prevent the planes from landing and taking off the airport.

1,830 degrees inside the plane
“What appears to have happened is that he (the pilot) didn’t manage to land and he tried to take off again,” said Capt. Marcos, a fire department spokesman who would only identify himself by rank and first name in accordance with department guidelines.

Temperatures reached 1,830 degrees inside the plane, and officials said there was no way passengers could have survived.

“All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook,” said Elias Rodrigues Jesus, a TAM worker who was walking nearby when he saw the crash. “I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur.”

TAM Linhas Aereas SA said 186 people were on the Airbus-320 — 162 passengers, 18 TAM employees and a crew of six. “Unhappily, there is no sign of survivors,” said Marco Bologna, the airline’s chief executive offer, at news conference.

Bologna added that three TAM workers in the building were killed and five others were missing. He did not say whether the missing are presumed dead.

There were fears of more dead on the ground, with 14 others taken to hospitals, where their conditions were not known.

Emergency workers have recovered 117 badly charred bodies, along with the plane’s flight data recorder, said Antonio de Olin, chief of the police station at the Congonhas airport. Forensic doctors were gathering information from relatives to help with identifications, he said.

Three days of mourning
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning for Brazil’s second major air disaster in less than a year. In September, a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 and an executive jet collided over the Amazon rain forest, killing 154 people. Wednesday’s crash now replaces that tragedy as Brazil’s worst air disaster.

Congressional investigations have raised questions about the country’s underfunded air traffic control systems, deficient radar system and the airlines’ ability to cope with a surge in travelers. Controllers — concerned about being made scapegoats — have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing lengthy delays and cancellations.

Presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach said it was premature to declare a cause, but critics have warned for years of the danger of such an accident when large planes land in rainy weather at Congonhas airport, Brazil’s busiest.

In 1996, a TAM airlines Fokker-100 crashed shortly after taking off from the same airport, killing all 96 people on board and three on the ground.

Group calls for runways extensions
An international pilots’ group on Wednesday urged authorities worldwide to install long safety strips at the ends of airport runways.

The “tragic accident at Sao Paulo Congonhas Airport demonstrates once again the need for Runway End Safety Areas,” said a statement issued by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.

The Britain-based association, which represents 105,000 commercial pilots worldwide, has been lobbying for years for airports to be equipped with at least one 1,000-foot runway overrun area.

The so-called “runway excursion” is common in aviation, with an average of one each week. The vast majority end without injury or damage, but in recent years there have been a number of serious accidents.

In March, 21 people died when a jetliner failed to stop on the runway in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, plunging into a rice paddy and catching fire. And in 2005, a jetliner shot off the runway in Toronto, skidded some 600 feet, hit and ravine and burst into flames. Remarkably, none of the 309 people aboard were killed.

“This is a worldwide problem with thousands of runways used in airline operations failing to comply with the recommendations set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” the statement from the pilots’ association said.

The statement said the group recognized that older airports in built up areas do not have the space for runway extensions. Instead, such airports should install soft ground beds — known as arrestor beds — to slow planes, much as escape ramps on highways can stop trucks when their brakes fail, the association said.

‘There are no red flags coming up’
A320s were not covered under the ban on landings by large aircraft at Congonhas Airport, and the TAM jet that crashed was a relatively recent model, said William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

“So there are no red flags coming up, it sounds like a straightforward runway overrun,” Voss said.

The single-aisle, twin-engine plane, delivered in 1998, had logged about 20,000 flight hours in some 9,300 flights, Airbus said.

Still, rainy conditions were a particular concern at the airport. Globo News television played tapes of conversations between flight controllers and pilots complaining about slick conditions on the runway days before the latest accident.

Tuesday’s TAM flight was landing on Congonhas’ main runway, which was recently resurfaced but not grooved to provide better braking in rainy conditions. There were plans to regroove the surface by the end of July.

In France, Airbus said it was sending five specialists to Brazil to help investigate and would provide “full technical assistance” to France’s bureau for accident investigations and to Brazilian authorities.

Emergency workers searching for bodies used a crane to maintain the structure of the destroyed TAM building.

‘My hopes are not too high’
The airline released a list of most of the people on the flight early Wednesday morning, but did not specify their nationalities. Opposition congressman Julio Redecker was among those on the flight.

“TAM expresses its most profound condolences to the relatives and friends of the passengers who were on Flight 3054,” the company said.

Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Sao Paulo in May, also sent his condolences.

The airline flew 67 relatives of the victims from Porto Alegre to Sao Paulo Wednesday after they passed the night in a closed room. They arrived teary-eyed and unwilling to talk to the media.

But one man who spoke with the Associated Press earlier, Lamir Buzzanelli, said his 41-year-old son, Claudemir, an engineer, had called him from a business trip to Porto Alegre to say he was in the plane.

“My hopes are not too high because I’ve been calling him on his cell phone, and all I get is his voice mail,” Buzzanelli said, his eyes tearing up.

Despite the crash, authorities reopened the airport Wednesday, using an auxiliary runway.