Standing in a clearing near the flaming wreckage of a Peruvian airliner, a family from Brooklyn huddled around a baby boy they found in the mud after their plane crash landed in the Amazon.
“My uncle told us, ‘Let us pray’ and we were silent,” said Joshelyn Vivas, 15. “Hail was coming down on us and we went into like a cocoon around the baby.”
TANS airline said wind shear Tuesday afternoon may have forced the pilot’s emergency landing, which killed four crew members and at least 33 passengers, making August the deadliest month for world airline disasters in three years.
But 58 others survived the crash landing, among them, the Vivas family.
“We jumped out the plane and unfortunately we were thigh deep in the marsh water. It was just mud,” said the girl’s uncle, Gabriel Vivas, a 41-year-old manager of an electronics rental shop. “We had to practically crawl out of there and try to get to some high ground.
“There was a baby that I saw behind the plane. I don’t know how the baby got there, but he was fine,” Gabriel Vivas said.
The Boeing 737-200 was carrying 98 people, including six crew members, on a domestic flight from the Peruvian capital of Lima to the Amazon city of Pucallpa, company spokesman Jorge Belevan said Wednesday.
Belevan said three missing people might include survivors from Pucallpa who returned to their homes after the crash without receiving medical assistance.
Television images of the crash site showed mutilated bodies being retrieved from a marsh near the Pucallpa airport where the pilot attempted an emergency landing. The fuselage was shattered and pieces strewn along a 500-yard path made by the plane as it crash-landed.
“A plane is totally destroyed and more than 50 percent of the passengers have survived,” John Elliot, an experienced Peruvian pilot and aviation expert, said in an interview with The Associated Press. He called it “a miracle.”
Gabriel Vivas was visiting his Peruvian homeland with his wife, Diana, 43, and his older brother, Jose Leandro Vivas, a New York City transit system toll collector, who had also brought his three daughters.
“It was raining and I saw all these black clouds. I knew something was going to go wrong,” said Diana Vivas, fighting back tears.
Gabriel Vivas said the captain had told the passengers to buckle their seat belts for landing when the plane made three sudden turbulent descents and crashed.
The family was seated in the rear of the aircraft, which, unlike the front, remained largely intact as it skidded across the marsh field. When it came to a stop, a flight attendant opened a rear door and urged passengers get out, the family said.
In an interview with the AP in a restaurant alongside the Ucayali River where his family was celebrating its good fortune, Gabriel said that he and another man saw a baby boy perhaps a year old behind the plane.
“He picked up the baby and we tried to get to higher ground. He got stuck in the mud and then I grabbed the baby. Then he jumped in front of me to push away the thorns that were in our way. Between us we got the baby to higher ground with everybody else,” he said.
Joshelyn Vivas said the family didn’t know if the baby’s parents had survived the crash but were told he had been brought to Lima and was alive.
An unpleasant birthday 'surprise'
Joshelyn’s father said the purpose of the family’s visit was to celebrate her 15th birthday — which was Monday — a traditional right of passage for teenage girls in Peru, much a like a sweet sixteen.
“To me this was a shocking (birthday) present, like I was so scared but at least I came through it,” Joshelyn said. “This present gave me a lot of bravery now.”
The pilot began his approach to the airport in torrential rains and strong winds, which passengers said began rocking the plane 10 minutes before the scheduled landing Tuesday afternoon. But four miles from the airstrip he attempted to make an emergency landing, TANS said, after wind shear apparently pushed his plane close to the ground.
The pilot apparently aimed for the marsh to soften the impact, but the aircraft broke apart in the landing, strewing pieces of fuselage as it skidded over the boggy ground.
Pilot skill or error?
Belevan credited the pilot’s skill for saving so many lives.
But Elliot and Victor Girao, a former president of Peru’s Association of Pilots, said the crash appeared to be due to pilot error. Elliot said the pilot should have opted to avoid the storm and land at another airport.
Both said the pilot was flying too close to the ground while making the approach to the airport from four miles out, making it difficult to control the aircraft against wind shear.
“They were coming in very low, looking for the airstrip. A big beginners’ error,” Girao said.
Search teams have recovered the plane’s cockpit flight data recorder, said Pablo Arevalo, a prosecutor in Pucallpa.
Belevan said there were 18 foreigners aboard the aircraft — 11 Americans, four Italians, one Colombian, one Australian and one from Spain.
Among the dead were at least four foreigners — an American man and woman, a Spanish woman and a Colombian woman, said Manuel Rodriguez Rojas, a government identification expert sent to Pucallpa to help identify the dead.
He identified the Americans as Stephen Michael Lotti, 28, through his boarding pass, and Sherra Young Gay through a visa card found on her body. There were no home towns available for either.
Airline accidents in Venezuela, Greece, Italy and Peru this month have killed 334 people. The previous deadliest month was May 2002, with three major crashes that killed at least 485.