Colombian ‘miracle’ plane crash survivor: Everything seemed fine, then ‘boom’

By Vivian Sequera, AP
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

130 survive ‘miracle’ plane crash in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia — Survivors say everything seemed normal as a jetliner with 131 people on board prepared to land in a storm on a Caribbean resort island. Suddenly it plunged to earth, killing one person — a death toll so low that passengers called it a miracle.

“The pilot informed us that we were going to land in San Andres, we buckled our seat belts, we settled in — and a second later, boom! A big bang,” said 25-year-old Alvaro Granados, who was flying with his wife and two children. “When my wife and I stood and looked behind us we saw that the back of the plane was missing.”

Authorities say it happened so quickly the pilot didn’t report an emergency to the control tower at Colombia’s San Andres Island.

But it may take experts months to figure out what happened in the moment when the Aires airline Boeing 737 jetliner hit the ground short of the runway on Monday — and how 130 of the people on board survived as the aircraft skidded on its belly with its fuselage fracturing and its landing gear and at least one engine ripping off.

After the jet ground to a stop, passengers scrambled from their seats or were helped to safety. Authorities said firefighters quickly doused flames that broke out on a wing.

The one fatality was Amar Fernandez de Barreto, 68, and doctors said she may have succumbed to a heart attack rather than physical injuries from the crash. Officials said 119 people in all were taken to hospitals or clinics, most of them for minor injuries.

At least 13 survivors, including four with serious injuries, were flown to Bogota for treatment, Colombian air force Col. David Barrero said Tuesday.

Investigators have been interviewing the crew and will be examining the flight data and cockpit voice recorders to piece together the final moments. Both were recovered from the wreckage and it will take three or four months to fully analyze them, said Col. Donald Tascon, deputy director of Colombia’s civil aeronautics agency.

Authorities are considering whether a violent wind shift in the thunderstorm could have played a role in the crash, as well as accounts of lightning as the plane was coming in for landing.

Hernando Hernandez, a 49-year-old accountant on vacation with his wife and 11-month-old daughter, said he was gazing at the lights of San Andres as the plane made what seemed to be a normal approach.

“But a gust of wind moved the plane a little and … I imagine the pilot gave the engines more power and once again put it into position, and we continued going down toward the runway,” Hernandez told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“It seemed to me that the plane’s back tires touched down,” Hernandez said. “All of a sudden, there is a loud noise and the plane breaks apart in three.”

“Once the plane stopped, the first thing I saw in front of us was flames. We smelled the fuel. Fuel fell on our clothes.”

Hernandez said he helped his wife as she struggled to undo her seat belt and they climbed out of the wreckage carrying their daughter, along with other passengers. They emerged with only minor bruises and cuts, and were at a hotel on the island planning to continue their vacation.

“We have to give thanks to God because this was a miracle,” Hernandez said. “It’s another opportunity at life.”

Based on how the fuselage ended up — in three large pieces on the runway — the plane most likely cracked apart on impact, Tascon said.

“If it had broken apart in flight, (the pieces) would have been more spread out and smaller,” he said by telephone from Bogota, while a team of investigators worked on the Caribbean island.

He said the Boeing 737-700’s maintenance log was up to date.

“You don’t exclude any possibility, but investigators will be looking closely at the weather,” said William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Voss said a “sudden shift in wind direction can cause the aircraft to suddenly lose a lot of lift and end up landing short of the runway.”

Tascon said San Andres’ airport is not equipped with sophisticated equipment such as Doppler radar, which is used in many U.S. airports to help detect wind shear.

The airline said at least five U.S. citizens were on the plane, while the U.S. Embassy in Colombia said four Americans and one U.S. permanent resident suffered injuries.

The Americans included a vacationing couple from suburban Atlanta, Carolina and David Bellino, who were awaiting transfer on Tuesday from an island hospital to a more advanced facility in Bogota.

They told NBC’s “Today Show” they heard a loud noise and then lost consciousness. When David Bellino came to, he opened the emergency exit, climbed onto the wing and pulled his wife through.

“I walked about 15 feet as fast as I could and my legs gave out,” he said. “My wife said, ‘No, we got to go. It’s going to blow up.’”

Carolina Bellino, who is seven weeks pregnant, said doctors told her that her baby would be fine. David Bellino had cracked vertebrae and couldn’t move his legs, but said doctors told him the paralysis would likely be temporary.

Four Brazilians, two Germans, two Costa Ricans and two French citizens also were on the jet, airline representative Erika Zarante said.

It crashed at 1:49 a.m. Monday on San Andres, a Colombian island with about 78,000 residents some 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Nicaragua.

Aires — whose full name is Aerovias de Integracion Regional SA — said it has about 20 planes, including 10 Boeing 737-700 jets.

Boeing said the wrecked 737-700 left the factory in 2003. It was not clear whether Aires was the first operator.

Associated Press writers George Tibbits in Seattle and Cesar Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.

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