Avianca jet crashes in near Madrid airport

By Lawrence Roberts

MEJORADA DEL CAMPO, Spain -- A crippled Colombian jumbo jet with 194 people aboard crashed in flames Sunday on approach to the Madrid airport, and authorities feared 185 people died.

Avianca Flight 011 from Paris to Madrid crashed shortly after 1 a.m. (7 p.m. EST) about 5 miles north of the Madrid airport into rolling hills covered with brush and vegetable fields near the town of Mejorada del Campo.


The victims were David Ford Jr., 40, of New Oxford, Adams County, and Thomas Heckenluber, 38, of East Berlin, Adams County, police said. Police were uncertain which man was the pilot.

The total number of casualties was not immediately known, but police and rescue workers said they doubted more survivors would be found -- leaving the possible number killed at 185.

'We have pulled out at least 100 bodies,' said Civil Guard Gen. Constantino Gomez. 'The rest of them are just burned beyond recognition. It is a mira:le that anyone could live through this.'


Three of the original 12 survivors died at nearby hospitals, police sources said.

'I was suspended by my seat belt, because the plane was belly up,' said a dazed but only slightly injured Hugo Bernal Cortes, 30, of Colombia.

'I somehow freed myself and kicked out one of the windows, through which I managed to escape. I don't remember anything else.'

Avianca officials in Madrid and Paris raised the initial passenger count of 189 to 194 on the flight, which originated in Frankfurt and stopped in Paris before heading for Madrid. It was to have continued on to Caracas and Bogota.

The cause of the disaster was not immediately known. Investigators at daybreak recovered the 'black box' flight recorder, which they said might tell why the Boeing 747 went down on a mostly clear night within sight of the runway.

Most of the passengers were French citizens, authorities said. Fifty-four had boarded in Frankfurt and 116 in Paris and there were 24 crewmembers, Avianca said.

It was the third accident involving planes of the Colombian national airline at or near to Madrid. The worst aviation disaster in history occurred in Spain.

Hours after the crash, the Boeing 747 was still smoldering. Debris was strewn more than a mile from the crash site and the stench of burned flesh and oil was everywhere.


'I heard the explosion and immediately I thought it was a plane,' said Miguel Angel Alarcon, who was working at the city dump early Sunday. 'It was so big. I don't think even a cat could have survived it.'

'The first thing I saw was a young man walking out of the wreck carrying a little child and walking with another little girl, crying, holding his hand,' said Alarcon. 'His clothes were burned.'

Authorities erected a makeshift morgue at the site and rescue workers using search lights continued to pull bodies from the remains of the plane. Dismembered bodies, stacked in a pile and covered with blankets, were removed by Spanish Army troops.

Airport control officials said they were in touch with the pilot of the plane shortly before the crash and he indicated no problems. But then communication with the aircraft stopped and authorities confirmed the crash.

Witnesses in Mejorada del Campo said one of the plane's engines was on fire before the crash. Others said they heard an explosion before the plane plunged to the ground.

In Washington, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said the federal agency was sending an investigator to the scene.

Spain was the site of the worst air disaster in aviation history. On March 27, 1977, a KLM Boeing 747 taking off crashed into a chartered Pan American World Airways Boeing 747 that was taxiing at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain.


The accident killed 582 people -- 334 aboard the Pan Am plane and 248 aboard the KLM craft. There were 62 survivors aboard Pan Am, none aboard KLM.

Sunday's crash was the third accident involving Avianca jetliners at or near the Madrid airport. On Jan. 31, 1973, a Boeing 707 went off the landing strip and was slightly damaged but no one was injured.

On Sept. 12, 1982, a Boeing 747 had a tire blow out. The plane skidded on the runway but there were no injuries.

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