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Israeli cargo plane crashes near Amsterdam

By JOSE JAMIN

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- An Israeli El Al 747-200 cargo plane exploded and crashed Sunday evening on the outskirts of Amsterdam, setting an apartment complex ablaze and killing at least 35 people, police and hospital officials said. The death toll was expected to rise significantly.

Hospitals in the area confirmed 35 deaths from the 7:10 p.m. crash, but the toll was expected to soar beyond 100 with at least 40 apartments destroyed at Bijlmermeer, a suburb south of Amsterdam.

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The plane also had a crew of four and they were all believed dead.

An Amsterdam police spokesman, Klaas Wilting, said, 'I don't know any casualty figure yet. I don't want to give estimates. I just want to say I feel shivers down my spine, I fear there will be many.'

A spokeswoman for the Amsterdam City Council, Noorte van Oostveen, said 'the Fire Department doesn't (expect) to find any survivors' in the rubble of two apartment buildings that bore the brunt of the crash.

'It is very possible that the (confirmed casualty) number is so low because the rest couldn't get away,' van Oostveen said. 'The report of the Fire Department makes clear that over 40 appartments are totally blown away -- nothing is left of them.'

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Rescuers were hampered by gas leaks that fed the blaze, van Oostveen said. She said rescue squads would be prevented from entering the building until after sunrise Monday by the intensity of the flames.

Two of the plane's engines were found in a small lake 9 miles north of the disaster area, authorities said.

Police said there were two explosions aboard the 747 cargo plane before it went down. They said the pilot tried to jettison the aircraft's fuel after the first explosion, but there was a second explosion and the plane plunged to the ground.

Police said they did not know the reason for the explosions, but a spokesman for the Dutch Air Services said the pilot reported mechanical problems and was trying to return to the Amsterdam airport.

The Israeli governement said it would have no comment on the crash, 'unless it turns out not to be an accident.'

But Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent a message to the Dutch government saying, 'Our hearts are with you as we mourn the deaths of Dutch and Israelis alike. Please convey our heartfelt condolences to the Dutch people and to the bereaved families.'

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One witness speaking on Dutch television, Ger Van Gemeen, said he saw what looked to be the plane's engine ablaze before the second explosion and saw the stricken jet nose-dive to the ground.

He said large pieces of flaming debris fell from the plane as it hurtled to earth and some pieces hit the 'Groeneveen' flats in the Amsterdam suburb.

Another witness, Rikki Cate, said, 'It's absolutely chaos. The entire building is on fire. I think there must be at least...there are hundreds of apartments within that one single building. There must be a couple thousand people living in that building.'

She said the scene was 'completely filled with police cars ambulances. At the moment all they're trying to do is look for injured and probably dead.'

The appartment building Groeneveen is connected to another building called Kruitberg in the southern suburb of Amsterdam called Bijlemermeer. The complex has nine floors and 200 apartments and was almost completely ablaze, witnesses said.

Marja van Terwijden, a housewife living a few hundred yards from the disaster area, told United Press International:

'We had just finished dinner. I was in the kitchen doing the dishes. I suddenly saw a burning plane coming down from the sky...with its nose pointing towards the apartment buildings. It just hit the buildings fully. I thought I was having a nightmare.

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'The whole thing caught fire and people in the street fell down, hit by pieces of the plane. I think many people are killed, because everybody was home watching the sports on TV.'

Dirk Koog, a spokesman for the Royal Dutch Air Services, said in a TV interview the plane took off from Schiphol Airport just a few minutes before the crash. The pilot informed the control tower he was having engine trouble and he wanted to return to the airport.

He circled, trying to jettison as much fuel as possible in a nearby lake. Koog said the pilot had just told the tower he was returning when contact was lost.

The casualties were taken to hospitals in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Haarlem and Beverwijk.

El Al Director General Rasi Bar-Lev told journalists in Israel Sunday night that a company committee would travel to Holland to investigate the crash.

He and other El Al officials did not rule out sabotage as a possible cause.

'The plane did not have previous malfunctions,' Bar-Lev said, adding that it was the newest jumbo in El Al's fleet.

Transport Minister Yisrael Kessar said a state commission would also depart for Amsterdam Monday morning to investigate the crash.

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