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Investigators probe Honduras jetliner crash

Investigators were probing a commercial jetliner crash that killed five people and injured 65 in Honduras.
Honduras Plane Crash
A commercial airliner sits on a street after it crashed in Tegucigalpa on Friday. The TACA airplane overshot a runway and slammed to a stop on a city street in the Honduran capital, killing five people.Fernando Antonio / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Investigators were probing a commercial jetliner crash that killed five people and injured 65 in Honduras, as authorities blocked additional flights from landing at the capital's notoriously dangerous airport on Saturday.

Investigators from France, El Salvador and the United States "will arrive in the coming hours" for an investigation that could last a month or more, TACA chief executive officer Roberto Kriete told The Associated Press.

President Manuel Zelaya issued a statement saying he lamented the accident. The president closed the Toncontin international airport for 48 hours to all traffic except helicopters and small airplanes with a maximum capacity of 42 passengers.

Honduran air officials said large jets would be transferred permanently to a former U.S. military airfield at Palmerola.

"I am tremendously saddened by what happened and profoundly concerned for the hospitalized passengers," said Kriete, who added that TACA would compensate the survivors and family members of the dead.

Kietre identified the dead from the plane as pilot Salvadoran Cesare D'Antonio, who had worked for TACA since 1993 and logged more than 11,000 flight hours; Nicaraguan citizen Harry Brautigam, the head of a regional development bank, who died of heart failure; and Jeanne Chantal, wife of the Brazilian ambassador in Honduras, Brian Michael Fraser Neele.

Fire Chief Carlos Cordero identified the other two victims as Honduran university students Josue Aguilar Nunez, 21, and Gustavo Trochez, 18, who were in one of three cars that were crushed by the airplane on a street next to the runway. Authorities initially believed one of the victims on the ground was a taxi driver.

Plane's path of destruction
The Airbus A-320, operated by the Central American airliner Grupo Taca, slid off the runway Friday morning on its second landing attempt. The plane mowed down trees and smashed through a metal fence before coming to rest about 20 yards (meters) beyond the strip, its nosed smashed against a roadside embankment and its fuselage broken into three parts.

The airliner had 124 passengers and a crew of six on board, plus five off-duty crew members riding as passengers, Taca said in a news release posted on its Web site. The flight was on a Los Angeles-San Salvador-Tegucigalpa route and was scheduled to continue on to Miami, Florida.

Honduran authorities frantically hosed down cars trapped beneath the wreckage as thousands of gallons of fuel gushed from the jet.

Rescuers pried open part of the wreckage to get the pilot and co-pilot out, but the pilot didn't survive, said Cesar Villalta, director of Honduras' military hospital.

"The pilot tried twice to land, but he ... ended up in the middle of the runway, not at the beginning," said passenger Norman Garcia, Honduras' ex-economy and tourism minister and a former ambassador to the United States.

Pilot's attempts to land
TACA's president in El Salvador, Alfredo Schildknecht, acknowledged that the pilot made two attempts to land at Toncontin.

"The first time he aborted due to poor visibility, and the second time the braking was not optimal," he said. "The landing strip was wet and the plane overshot it."

The airline said passengers of 16 different nationalities were on board, including seven Americans and two Canadians. Sixty were from Honduras.

Rescue workers helped surviving passengers exit the plane on inflatable slides and through the plane's front and rear exits. Some walked to their houses or hotels while others were brought to nearby hospitals

Larger jets will now operate out of the Palmerola airport, also known as the Soto Cano base, about 30 miles north of the capital.

Used by the United States during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, Palmerola has the best runway in the country at 8,850 feet long and 165 feet wide and now is used mostly for drug surveillance planes.

Airport safety
There have been calls for years to replace the aging Toncontin 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 in 1948 with a runway less than 5,300 feet long — shorter than that of a small field such as Municipal Airport in Goldsboro, North Carolina

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.

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.