SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- A United Airlines DC-10 carrying 289 people crashed Wednesday during an attempted emergency landing with total hydraulic failure, breaking apart and bursting into flames as it cartwheeled down a runway into a cornfield.
Richard Vohs, Gov. Terry Branstad's spokesman, said there were 123 confirmed survivors. It was believed 166 other people were aboard, and he said they were feared dead.
'We don't have a firm count there (of the dead),' Vohs said. 'At this point, there is still a lot of searching going on.'
Pieces of the plane 'about the size of a small car' were discovered near Alta, where the plane turned around to fly back to Sioux City. Alta is 75 miles east of Sioux City.
United initially reported Flight 232 carried 287 passengers and a crew of 11, but at a Chicago news conference United senior vice president Lawrence Nagin said the number of passengers had been revised downward to 278, and possibly one infant. He said there were three in the cockpit crew and eight flight attendants. He stressed the numbers were preliminary and could change.
The plane left Denver at 12:45 p.m. MDT and was to land at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport at 4:01 p.m. CDT, but it was forced to attempt the emergency landing without hydraulic brake power at Sioux City.
St. Luke's Hospital in Sioux City reported it had received 35 survivors. Spokesman Mike Merrigan said nine of the victims were in critical condition. Merrigan said the victims were being treated for burns, broken bones and head injuries.
Jeff Pritchard, 35, was standing near the north end of the runway when the 15-year-old plane crashed.
'The tail came down, the nose came up and then it cartwheeled,' said Pritchard. 'It didn't catch on fire until it hit the runway.'
Pritchard said he could tell the pilot was fighting to keep control.
'You could tell he was fighting it all the way,' he said. 'He came over the residential section of Sioux City. He made it to the airport.'
Wreckage was scattered for several hundred yards.
One survivor, Charles Martz, said, 'I saw people with their clothes torn off. They were horribly mangled people. There were at least two dozen survivors in various stages. About two dozen of us walked away with just mud and shock.'
He told CBS the plane 'broke into three pieces' and added there were 'bodies all over the place. I ended up upside down ... the smoke's coming in.' He said he went through flames to get out and got muddy. 'I can't believe it -- people with feet missing, arms missing ... .'
Pieces of the plane were found near the small town of Alta, in the area where the pilot first reported distress. A large part thought to be from the rear of the plane was discovered 75 feet from a farm home on a seed corn research farm 4 miles west of Alta.
Neil Quirian, owner of the Mellow Dent Co. said no one was injured when the piece landed.
'It's about the size of a small car,' Quirian said. 'It looks almost like a nose-cone but I've been told it's from the rear of the plane.'
The Buena Vista sheriff's office cordoned off the area until Federal Aviation Administration investigators could arrive. Deputies said at least four other smaller pieces of the plane were found in the Alta area.
An FAA spokeswoman in Kansas City, Mo., said the plane crashed at 3:57 p.m. while attempting an emergency landing.
Stanley Rivers, deputy regional administrator for the FAA central region, said, 'We have unconfirmed reports there are at least 40 survivors, this isunconfirmed, there could be more.'
Nagin said the airline was 'doing everything humanly possible.'
'We are working to confirm the facts and will notify family members as soon as we can,' he said. He refused to confirm how many were killed and how many survived.
'We do know there is a significant number of survivors,' Nagin said. 'In a city like Sioux City, there are people in the National Guard Armory. There were people taken to various hospitals and until there is an accurate number it is really inappropriate to speculate.'
The plane had spent Tuesday night in Philadelphia, where it received a routine inspection.
Nagin refused to say specifically how experienced the pilot was but noted 'senior pilots' fly the DC-10s.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Alan Pollack said from Washington, D.C., headquarters: 'The pilot reported a complete hydraulic failure. The airplane descended to 11,000 feet and circled while the crew and airport people prepared for an emergency landing. It attempted the landing and crashed short of the runway.'
Pollack said the aircraft's hydraulic system controls such parts as the wing flaps and landing gear.
Passenger Rod Vetter told NBC the plane split as it crashed.
'The pilot said he were going to attempt a landing in Sioux City,' said Vetter, who said he suffered a sprained neck. 'At about 4 we braced for landing as instructed and we attempted a landing.
'The plane evidently split in parts and I was sitting in Row 20. One of the survivors I was talking to was in Seat 9 and he said it split right in front of him. We were on fire in a cornfield.'
Vetter said the pilot told passengers the plane lost an engine and then lost hydraulics.
Crash survivor Melanie Cincala of Toledo, Ohio, told ABC News, 'This fellow got on the intercom and said we were going to be crash-landing because of engine failure. ... I think we rolled a couple of turns. The plane landed upside down and when I undid my seatbelt, I hit my head on the ceiling ... .
'There seemed to be a lot of panic going on. I can remember picking up a little baby and carrying the baby out of the plane.
'... I had my eyes open. It was like a fireball just flashed past us, and the plane burst into flames after I was off.'
An NTSB investigative team was dispatched from Washington, D.C., and was scheduled to arrive at the airport at 11:27 p.m. local time, Pollack said.
A fire department spokeswoman, Patti Bauerly, said the plane was coming in with no brakes. She said it was 'totally demolished' and burst into flames.
Firefighters and rescue personnel from surrounding communities rushed to the scene to transport any survivors to nearby hospitals.
A witness, Mark Smith, who was working about 1,500 yards away from the crash site, told CNN, 'We heard a loud crash and when I stepped outside you could see the plane tumbling down the runway. It had, from what I could see, somehow a wing had hit the ground and it cartwheeled down the runway pretty much into about 15,000 different pieces.'
He said it was on fire. 'It was burning rather profusely, you could say,' Smith said.
Those waiting for passengers aboard Flight 232 were told to gather on Concourse C in the United terminal at O'Hare for a briefing.
In Denver, Rabbi Avrohom Brownstein of Denver said his son, Sroli Brownstein, 9, a fourth-grader, survived the crash. The family had put him on the plane en route to Philadelphia to visit a friend.
Avrohom said someone heard about the crash on the radio and called him. Then a nurse from a Sioux City hospital calledto say his son was all right.
'We're very grateful. We just thank God he's OK. We told the nurse to tell him we're on our way to get him. We may have to drive him back home. He might not get back on an airplane.'
Denver Mayor Federico Pena met with a few relatives of passengers at Stapleton International Airport. He said United would fly families from Denver to Sioux City, and that he was flying on a private plane to Sioux City.
As to those who hadn't heard anything on the fate of relatives, Pena said, 'They are just praying and hoping for the best.'
Sioux City was using every ambulance available to transport the passengers.
Gov. Branstad issued a disaster proclamation and State Disaster Services said eight National Guard helicopters from Iowa were on their way to Sioux City.
Vohs said Branstad flew to Cedar Rapids to meet Vice President Dan Quayle, but cut his visit short to fly back to Des Moines.
Vohs said two semi-trucks filled with medical supplies were on the way to Sioux City from Omaha, Neb. He said helicopters were provided by the National Guard but they were not used.
Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr ordered two National Guard helicopters to assist. A city bus was being used to transport victims.
Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., also sent a helicopter to Sioux City. McKennan Hospital-Sioux Falls spokesman Mike Regan said the hospital's burn center was alerted to stand by.
The worst air disaster in the United States involved a DC-10. A total of 273 people died May 25, 1979, when an American Airlines DC-10 lost one of its three jet engines and crashed shortly after takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. All 271 on the plane and two men on the ground were killed.