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Survivors say jet crashed without warning

By LAWRENCE ROBERTS

MEJORADA DEL CAMPO, Spain -- Survivors of an Colombian jumbo jet crash that killed 181 people said Monday they had no warning that anything was wrong as the plane made its approach to the Madrid airport.

Spanish government officials and families and friends of the victims packed an airport chapel for a funeral service as investigators, including a four-man team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, searched the crash site for clues to what caused the crash Sunday of the Avianca airlines Boeing 747.

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The NTSB is involved in all crashes of U.S.-made commercial aircraft.

Medical examiners continued the difficult tasks of identifying charred remains of victims at an airport hangar.

Pedro Tena, director of Spanish Civil Aviation, said the search through the charred, scattered debris would continue for several days.

'This is a Sherlock Holmes kind of investigation because little things can lead to big facts,' Tena said.

Avianca's European director, Rodolfo Amaya, said in Paris that the airline's final death count was 181 of the 192 passengers and crew aboard.

One of the 11 survivors, Patrick Negers, 29, from outside Paris, said he at first 'thought it was a nightmare' when he found himself and his family in the flaming wreckage.

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Negers, whose wife, Elizabeth, 26, and their two children, Kathy, 4, and Ludovic, 20 months, also survived, said he was chatting with a stewardess as the jet came in to land.

'Suddenly the plane lost altitude very quickly,' he said from a hospital near the crash scene, about5 miles south of Madrid's Barajas Airport, near the town of Mejorada Del Campo.

He said the last thing he remembered was seeing flames coming from an engine on the plane's right wing.

'I saw the airplane in flames and I thought it was a nightmare and I touched the ground to see if it was real. I called out for my wife. She yelled, 'I'm here and I'm with the children.''

He said that during the first moments 'I saw no one else, no bodies, not the plane. Just my wife and my children.'

The jet came to rest belly up, torn into pieces that were strewn over the treeless rolling hills. Another survivor, Hugo Bernal Cortes, in his 30s, of Colombia, also said there was no warning before the crash.

Cortes, who found himself hanging upside down by his seatbelt when the plane landed, freed himself and kicked out a window to escape.

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Investigators said the fact that one of the jet's four engines was afire would not have prevented it from landing safely.

Both flight recorders were recovered and would be analyzed, possibly by the NTSB in Washington, authorities said.

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