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Survivor: Spain plane's wing dipped sharply

The airliner that crashed this week in Madrid had just barely got airborne and its right wing dipped sharply before the plane started wobbling and went down, one of the few survivors of the disaster said Saturday.
Spain Plane Crash
Magali Baton, from France, shows a picture of her son Ethan Charilas and husband Pierrick Charilas, victims of the Spanair jet crash in Madrid on Saturday.Manu Fernandez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The airliner that crashed this week in Madrid had just barely got airborne and its right wing dipped sharply before the plane started wobbling and went down, one of the few survivors of the disaster said Saturday.

Ligia Palomino Riveros, a 42-year-old Colombian-born Spaniard, also told The Associated Press that after a seemingly minor technical malfunction forced the pilot to abandon a first takeoff attempt, she thought the airline was going to — and should — switch planes.

Spanair did not respond to a query Saturday as to whether it had in fact contemplated putting the passengers on another aircraft.

The Spanair mechanic who dealt with the breakdown — a faulty air temperature gauge near the cockpit — and certified the plane as ready to fly has been questioned by police and crash investigators, Spanair confirmed Saturday.

Death toll rises
Only 19 people survived the tragedy at Madrid's airport. Late Saturday a 31-year-old badly burned woman died, a hospital said, raising the crash death toll to 154.

Palomino Riveros, who suffered a broken leg and a broken rib, was traveling with her husband Jose Flores, who also survived, and his sister, who died.

So far 53 bodies have been identified. Many of the rest were burned beyond recognition and forensic teams have been using DNA techniques. Families traveled Saturday to a Madrid cemetery, where the scientific work is being done, to claim their loved ones and take them home. Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said he expects the identification process to conclude for the most part on Sunday.

Palomino Riveros gave one of very few survivor accounts that have been made public, sounding tired and weak as she spoke in a telephone interview from her hospital bed.

She said she had heard nothing to indicate that one of the plane's two engines exploded, as some press reports have said, quoting witnesses.

Plane took off slowly
The plane crashed, burned and largely disintegrated on its second takeoff attempt, after Spanair dealt with what it has called a minor problem with the temperature gauge. It was detected while the plane was taxiing, and the aircraft returned to the gate for about an hour.

As the plane took off a second time down the runway, Palomino Riveros recalls it "was moving very slowly" but eventually it became airborne.

"But then it made a turn, as if the wing dropped abruptly," she said. "We were still very low, very close to the ground."

After the plane got a bit higher, it began to "wobble from side to side," she said, describing this as the last thing she remembers before the collision.

An emergency medical worker herself, Palomino Riveros said she lost consciousness, then woke up on the ground after hearing an explosion.

She was so disoriented she thought a dead man behind her was her husband. She shook him and shouted "Wake up, wake up, wake up!" before realizing it was not him.

"I saw the watch was not his, nor the T-shirt," Palomino Riveros said.

She recalled passengers screaming out in agony, and firefighters and rescue workers picking frantically through fiery wreckage, giving instructions and shouting when they found someone alive.

"And then the wind shifted and I felt how the smoke was burning me," she said.

Spanish newspapers have reported that after the air gauge malfunction was announced to passengers, some said they wanted to get off the plane but the cabin crew would not let them. However, Palomino Riveros said, except for one man apparently angry over the delay, she did not notice a lot of people eager to disembark.

Further study needed
Spanair, which is owned by SAS, says the temperature gauge problem was handled by essentially turning the device off because it was not an absolutely essential piece of equipment. It says this is accepted procedure and the malfunction had nothing to do with the crash.

But Spain's civil aviation chief, Manuel Bautista, told the AP on Friday that the breakdown requires further study. He said that, depending on what else was happening to the plane right then, it might conceivably have played some role in the disaster.

A combination of failures likely caused the crash, he said.

Palomino Riveros said after the pilot announced the problem had been corrected, people seemed to relax, herself included. Before that, though, when she first saw the buses, she expected the plane to be evacuated.

"I thought that if there was something wrong, the right thing to do is switch planes," she said. "I told my husband they should put us on another plane."