MEXICO CITY -- A propeller-driven cargo plane bound for Miami crashed onto a highway shortly after takeoff from Mexico City Thursday, then slammed into a crowded restaurant, killing at least 35 people, authorities said.
Initial reports said all four passengers and four crew members aboard the four-engine Belice Air International Boeing 377 plane were killed, as well as 27 people on the ground.
But later radio reports said the death toll had risen to 46 and that the pilot, co-pilot, and one passenger aboard the pre-World War II aircraft had survived.
At least 20 people were injured, state television and radio reports said.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but some reports said the plane had developed a short-circuit in its electrical system.
The plane took off at 5:01 p.m. and crashed two minutes later on the Mexico City-Toluca highway 10 miles west of the capital, said Antonio Alvarez, director of airport services at the Mexico City airport.
The plane crashed into the Los Pandys restaurant on the highway, where about 50 people were dining, and narrowly missed hitting a roadside gas station, the reports said.
Witnesses on the ground told the official Notimex news agency they heard a loud explosion and saw the plane crash into several cars, setting them on fire. Parts of the aircraft were reported strewn across the highway.
A radio report said a three-story building and several nearby houses were damaged by fire.
'There was no time to save anyone,' said one witness.
The plane carried members of an equestrian team, whose nationality was not immediately known, as well as 18 champion horses, radio reports said. One report said the team's trainer was among the survivors.
One report said the plane carried members of the Mexican equestrian team heading for Indianapolis for the 10th Annual Pan American Games, but a secretary for the Mexican Olympic Committee told United Press International that the horses and passengers did not belong to the Mexican team.
The plane hit 20 to 25 cars, the radio report said.
'The four passengers and four crew on board and at least another 15 on the ground were killed,' Alvarez told United Press International.
Alvarez said his office had no confirmed number of injuries, but Teresa Marquez, of the federal Emergency Rescue Service, said at least seven people on the ground were severely burned and taken to two hospitals in Mexico City.
Reports from the scene said the crash might have been intensified by the explosion of gas tanks in a gas station located next to the restaurant.
Angel Martinez Perez, a clerk at the station, said the plane crashed with little warning.
'All of a sudden I saw a powerful flash in the sky. That was when I turned around and saw the plane started to crash to the ground,' Martinez said. 'All of us on the ground rushed to the plane and started to begin the rescue. Maybe because of our help there are fewer injuries.'
According to Martinez, the plane struck several power lines and heavily damaged a small apartment building.
The crash site was scene of widespread destruction as bodies, demolished cars and debris from the aircraft littered a wide stretch of the highway. The roof of the restaurant was destroyed and several nearby houses were severely damaged.
Crews worked frantically to put out several scattered fires and to begin clearing wreckage off the important highway which connects Mexico City with Tocula, 35 miles west of the capital.
At 8:45 p.m., traffic leading to the city of Toluca, the capital of the state of Mexico, was backed up for miles.
Workmen on the site estimated the plane left a 450-to-600 foot path of destruction as it skidded along the highway.
Meanwhile, a Boeing spokesman told UPI in Seattle he was unaware of what kind of plane crashed, although he said Boeing did build a four-engine propeller 377 between 1947 and 1950. The plane was also called a Stratocruiser. The spokesman said he was not aware that any Stratocruisers were still in operation.