A Miami-bound jetliner overshot a runway, raced onto a busy street and slammed into an embankment in the Honduran capital Friday, killing the pilot, a passenger and a motorist on the ground.
More than 75 people were injured, including Brazil's ambassador to Honduras, Brian Michael Fraser Neele. Police said he was being treated at a private hospital and his wife was missing.
The nose of the Grupo Taca Airbus 320, which was carrying 124 people, smashed into an embankment and its fuselage buckled and broke in places, trapping the pilot and co-pilot inside.
Rescuers had to pry open part of the wreckage to get them out, but the pilot didn't survive, said Cesar Villalta, director of Honduras' military hospital.
Passenger Harry Brautigam, a Nicaraguan who headed a regional development bank, died of heart failure shortly after the crash. The body of a man trapped under the plane's wreckage was believed to be a taxi driver.
More than 2,000 gallons of fuel spilled out of the jet, and authorities tried to clear away hundreds of onlookers while they hosed down cars trapped under the plane's left engine.
"The airplane's fuel could cause an explosion, and that would be an even bigger tragedy," Security Ministry spokesman Ivan Mejia said.
Many passengers walked away
Roberto Sosa, 34, told The Associated Press: "We landed ... and suddenly I heard a really strong, loud impact."
Mirtila Lopez, 71, said she was talking to another passenger when the plane "left the runway, hit electric cables from a nearby street and then got stuck in the side of a small ravine."
The plane left San Salvador at 8:30 a.m. local time carrying passengers mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. It was scheduled to stop briefly in Tegucigalpa and in San Pedro Sula before heading to Miami.
It was unclear what caused the crash, but weather may have been a factor. The runway was wet with rain from Tropical Storm Alma.
Airport safety, troubles
Officials have been struggling for years to replace aging Toncontin International Airport, whose short runway, primitive navigation equipment and neighboring hills make it one of the world's more dangerous international airports.
The airport was built on the southern edge of hilly Tegucigalpa in 1948 with a runway less than 5,300 feet long — shorter than that of a small field such as Municipal Airport in Goldsboro, N.C.
The altitude of some 3,300 feet forces pilots to use more runway on landings and takeoffs than they would at sea level. And because of the hills, pilots have to make an unusually steep approach.
President Manuel Zelaya said he was talking to his Cabinet about using the U.S. military's Soto Cano air base about 40 miles north of the capital. It has the best runway in the country at 8,850 feet long and 165 feet wide and is used most for drug surveillance flights.
"I've flown a lot, and pilots have to work really hard to arrive successfully at Toncontin," Zelaya said.
In 1997, a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane overshot the runway at Toncontin and rolled 200 yards before bursting into flames on a major boulevard, killing three people aboard.
The worst crash associated with the airport came in 1989 when a Honduran airliner hit a nearby hill, killing 133 people.