WARSAW, Poland -- A crippled Polish jetliner crashed in a spectacular fireball in a forest outside Warsaw today on a charter flight to New York, killing at least 182 people, including as many as 38 U.S. residents, a spokesman for Poland's LOT airline said.
It was the worst airline disaster in Polish history. One eyewitness described the smouldering crash site as a 'crematorium for passengers.'
Spokesman Roman Wionczek said 183 people -- 172 passengers and 11 crew members -- died in the fiery crash of LOT flight 5055 from Warsaw to New York's Kennedy Airport. Polish authorities listed the number aboard at one less, 182.
There were 38 U.S. residents aboard the Soviet-built Ilyushin-62 jetliner, a LOT spokesman in Chicago said.
The airline said Mrs. Janina Szulc, 43, of Clifton, N.J., arrived late at the airport and missed the flight due to slow clearance through customs. 'I am happy that I am alive but I am all numb,' she said.
The four-engine aircraft took off from Warsaw's Okecie airport at 10:18 a.m. and was in the air 53 minutes, Polish radio reported.
Reports said the pilot was trying to return to the Warsaw airport with one or two engines afire when the plane crashed in Kabackie Forest near the village of Powsin, 6 miles outside Warsaw, the agency said.
Ludwika Grabowska, a witness, said, 'The plane was coming down like a missile, making a whistling sound. Then the huge explosion took place and at least 20 smaller explosions followed it. The flames jumped up to at least 200 yards high.'
A LOT spokesman said most of the passengers were Poles and Americans of Polish descent who were returning home.
Krzyszpof Ziebinski, a LOT official in New York, said the flight had been chartered by Americans Travel Abroad, a New York company.
Chester Grabowski, a Jersey City, New Jersey, man visiting relatives in the area, said the plane cut a path through the forest up to 400 yards long and burned corpses and arms and legs were scattered through the crash site, some hanging from charred trees.
He said, 'No single body had clothes on. They were naked because the clothes caught fire and burned. ... It was a crematorium for the passengers.'
The area was cordoned off by police. Dozens of police and fire vehicles crowded the area and ambulances began to remove the bodies.
A LOT airline hostess, one of a group who visited the crash site, said the plane was the newest bought by Poland from the Soviet Union.
Prime Minister Zbigniew Messner set up a special commision to investigate the disaster.
Poland's worst previous crash took place on March 14, 1980, when a LOT Ilyushin-62 airliner flying from New York to Warsaw crashed outside the capital, killing all 87 people on board, including 22 members and officials of a U.S. boxing team.
The crash is at least the sixth major accident involving an Ilyushin-62 since August 1972. Those crashes killed 515 people.
Zbigniev Dabkowski, general manager for LOT's U.S. operations in New York, said the airline had set up an emergency hotline in New York for information on passengers. The number is 212-944-8116.