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Northwest Airlines DC-9 crashes with 149 aboard

By RICK PLUTA

DETROIT -- A Northwest Airlines DC-9 jetliner with 149 people aboard crashed and touched off a huge fireball while taking off from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport Sunday night, officials and witnesses said.

'For half a mile up the road there is nothing but bodies and pieces of plane,' one rescue worker said. 'The closest person I found even intact was the pilot. ... I found 70 bodies, and not one live body.'

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There was one confirmed report that a young girl taken from the accident scene was being treated for burns and fractures, but no other hospitals in the area of the airport had received any survivors. Authorities said it was not immediately known if the girl was on the ground or in the plane at the time of the crash.

Police, sheriff's deputies, firefighters and ambulances were rushed to the scene.

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Witnesses said the plane crashed to the ground in a busy section near the airport that contains several hotels and rental car businesses. The crash occurred at 8:46 p.m., just seconds after takeoff on a flight from Detroit to Phoenix, Ariz.

Witnesses said the booming crash set off a huge fireball and smoke could be seen at least a mile away. Debris was scattered throughout the area.

Radio station WWJ in Detroit quoted witnesses as saying the plane may have hit a highway overpass near the airport. But a Wayne County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman said it may have hit a building.

Fred Farrar, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, said the jetliner, Northwest Airlines Flight 255, crashed on takeoff from the Detroit airport on a flight to Phoenix. The flight originated in Saginaw, Mich., and was to continue on to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., after the stopover in Phoenix.

Farrar said the plane carried 144 passengers and a crew of five. Farrar said the FAA had reports that the left engine on the plane had failed, but he said it was not known if that caused the crash.

Farrar confirmed there were reports of a fire following the crash.

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Witnesses in Detroit said weather may have been a factor in the crash -- high winds whipped the area at the time and there was intermittent rain.

Wreckage -- including debris and suitcases -- was scattered about a mile near the intersection of Middlebelt Rd. and I-94 near the airport. The plane itself was crushed and lying along the road.

Police were combing the area with flashlights and I-94, which goes past the airport, was closed.

A 4 or 5-year-old girl suffering from burns over 20 to 30 percent her body and fractures was taken initially to Annapolis Hospital in Wayne County and later transferred by air ambulance to University Hospital in Ann Arbor where she was listed in critical condition, according to Patrick Cassidy director of nursing at Annapolis. It was not immediately known if she was in the plane or on the ground.

A Wayne County sheriff's deputy who was transporting a prisoner in the airport area at the time of the crash said he saw 'a glow from behind the trees.'

'It got brighter and brighter and there was an explosion like a bomb. It sprayed across the freeway.'

'I saw the explosion in the air. I couldn't describe it,' said Randy Terry, who was on his way to pick up his wife when he saw the crash.

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In the last week there have been two close calls in the skies over Detroit -- both involving Northwest jets.

On Thursday, the pilot of a Northwest Airlines flight from Memphis, Tenn., reported a single-engine plane came within 300 feet of his craft as it approached Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and on Aug. 9, a Northwest Boeing 757 flew within 1 miles of another jet.

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