ROMULUS, Mich. -- Investigators today tentatively ruled out sabotage aboard a Northwest Airlines jet that exploded in flames and crashed shortly after taking off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, killing at least 152 people on the plane and two on the ground.
The death toll of 154 equaled that of the second worst air accident in U.S. history.
Flight 255, a DC-9 carrying 144 passengers, a crew of six and three non-working airline employees flying for free, punched through the roof of a car-rental agency at 8:47 p.m. EDT Sunday shortly after takeoff. It burst into flamesand plowed though a parking lot, then skidded along a street and smashed into an Interstate 94 overpass.
Police confirmed at least two people were killed on the ground and at least six others were injured in the disaster -- the first major crash of the year. It was the worst accident in the 30-year history of the Detroit airport.
Among the injured was a 4- or 5-year-old critically burned girl, who was found in the crash wreckage. There were conflicting reports on whether the girl was aboard the plane or was a passenger in a vehicle on the ground. Northwest Airlines and police said they were unsure.
A spokeswoman at the University of Michigan Hospital said the girl was in critical condition and that her identity remained unknown.
FBI and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were at the crash scene. Bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue at the airport as relatives began arriving to begin the grim task of identifying victims.
John Anthony, spokesman for the FBI's Detroit office, said six to eight agents initially repsonded to the crash but found no evidence of foul play.
'There never was an FBI investigation,' Anthony said. 'No information concerning a bomb or any tampering ever came to our attention.
'The situation could change with the additional investigation by the FAA, but so far that has not developed.'
An NTSB spokeswoman said the doomed plane's black box was flown to Washington today for analysis at the board's laboratory.
Police said six people were arrested for looting at the crash site.
Witnesses said they heard a loud explosion and then saw the plane burst into a fireball before it hit the ground.
'It's a mess. It's not something you'd want to see every day,' said Col. Robert Paulson, a Civil Air Patrol chaplain at the scene.
Paulson, the parish priest at the Church of the Holy Cross in Novi, said he saw pieces of bodies scattered through the smoldering wreckage. 'You were you at one time, now you're not,' he said in describing the scene.
Rich Shag, 50, of Long Beach, Calif., was staying with his wife at a Comfort Inn. He said they heard 'a real loud engine roar,' then heard an explosion and all the lights went out in the room.
When they went outside, they saw thick black smoke and a fireball. 'We just began shaking. We feared the worst,' he said.
Don Sidell, 45, of Burbank, Calif., who has been staying at the motel while working on a contracting project, said he ran out and saw the Avis Rent-A-Car Building in flames. He said it was 'incredibly hot' as he approached the wreckage.
Sunday night's crash was the first major U.S. crash in a year - since an Aeromexico DC-9 jetliner collided Aug. 31, 1986, with a small plane over Ceritos, Calif., killing 82 people.
Flight 255 originated in Saginaw, Mich. After leaving Detroit, the flight was bound for Phoenix and then Orange County, Calif. Most of the passengers aboard were believed to be headed for Phoenix. Airport officials at Saginaw said there were no known problems when the DC-9 left for Detroit.
Nick Vanos, 24, backup center for the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association, apparently was among the passengers on the flight, Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo said today. Colangelo, reached in San Jose, Calif., said he was told Vanos had a boarding pass for Flight 255 and checked in at the gate for the flight.
Investigators with specially trained dogs moved through the wreckage in a search for bodies and clues to the cause of the wreck.
NTSB officials were investigating a control tower report that an engine on the DC-9 exploded in flames just before the jetliner crashed.
The Detroit control tower had instructed the pilot to make a right turn just after takeoff, said Mort Edelstein, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Chicago.
Edelstein said one avenue of investigation was an air traffic controller's report of an explosion in the craft's left engine shortly after takeoff.
'The controller saw (the pilot) bank left and, sort of in a rolling fashion, bank right, and then saw an explosion in the left engine, followed by flames,' Edelstein said. But he emphasized that this report was preliminary and unconfirmed.
Edelstein said the plane's left wing hit the ground about 2,000 feet past the end of the runway at I-94 and Middlebelt Road.
Flight 255 was a version of the DC-9 known as an MD80, a twin-engine jet built for short- to medium-length flights, said Donald Hanson, a spokesman for McDonnell Douglas Corp., the maker of the plane.
'It's had a very good record all along,' Hanson said. 'There have been cases of engine problems where the blade has been thrown from the engine, but no injuries were caused.'
Witnesses said the crash set off a huge fireball and smoke could be seen at least a mile away. Debris was scattered throughout the area.
'For half a mile up the road there is nothing but bodies and pieces of plane,' said one of the first rescue workers at the scene. 'The closest person I found even intact was the pilot. I found 70 bodies, and not one live body.'
'There was nothing but a total ball of fire underneath the bridge,' witness Joel Taylor told Cable News Network. 'Flames were coming up from both sides as I drove over top the bridge. I was afraid to go over top. I was afraid it might blow up on me.
'But I went over top of it,' Taylor said. 'I stopped my car. I got out. There was a big propeller lying by my car. I looked out, I could see flames, I heard people screaming.'
Jim Fontana, 25, operations manager for an Avis car-rental agency, said the plane struck his building before it hit the ground and plowed through a parking lot, destroying 30 to 40 cars.
The plane punched a 4- by 5-foot hole in the roof of the Avis office.
'It hit 20 feet above my head,' Fontana said. 'I was coming out. I saw the fireball ... I felt the heat. It was like an atomic explosion. It was like a blast furnace. It shattered almost all the windows in the building.'
Fontana said about 20 employees were in the building at the time, but none was hurt. A 20-foot section of wing was left in front of the building.
'There was a big noise,' said witness Tony Atkins, 26, of Ecorse, Mich., who was driving on Middlebelt Road at the time of the crash. 'It hit the viaduct and went boom. There were bits and pieces flying everywhere, a lot of car accidents. It was raining parts, clothes, luggage, parts of bodies, everything.'
I-94, a major freeway for Detroit-area commuters, was closed temporarily by the accident. The airport itself was closed only briefly.
In Phoenix, boards announcing the plane's arrival and departure times were cleared shortly after word of the crash was received. Relatives and friends of the victims were taken to a guarded room as they arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport.
In the past week there have been two near-collisions in the skies over Detroit, both involving Northwest jets.
On Thursday the pilot of a Northwest Airlines flight from Memphis, Tenn., reported that 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 a second jet.
The worst single U.S. air crash on record occurred in Chicago on May 25, 1979, when an American Airlines DC-10 lost one of its three engines and crashed shortly after takeoff from O'Hare International Airport, killing 275 people.
The second-deadliest single crash occurred on July 9, 1982, when a Pan American World Airways Boeing 727-200 taking off from New Orleans en route to Las Vegas, Nev., crashed in Kenner, La., killing 154 people.
The previous worst crash at Detroit's airport was just five months ago. On March 4, 1987, a CASA 212 twin turboprop owned by Fischer Bros. Airlines, a Northwest Airlink flight, missed a runway while trying to land, then flipped and burned as it slid upside down into trucks and ground equipment before stopping 15 yards from a crowded terminal. Nine people were killed and 13 injured.