‘This is what hell must be like’
Eyewitnesses and first responders to the Spanair crash in Madrid report horrific scenes of carnage and little hope.22 August 2008
Madrid -- At the start of what became a journey into catastrophe was a take-off like any other. The plane taxied to its starting position at Madrid airport and began rolling down the runway.
But the Spanair McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 did not rise up into the blue skies above the Spanish capital. Instead, the Canary Island-bound plane merely edged up just a few metres above the ground, raced over the end of the runway and then vanished into a hollow.
"I saw how the plane was torn into several pieces," one motorist who had witnessed the accident from the motorway said. "Then there was a powerful explosion. At first I thought that the plane was about to land. But then it veered off suddenly to one side and with its right wingspan it burrowed into the earth."
A huge plume of smoke rose up from the crash site. The fire department deployed helicopters to douse the blazing plane and the surrounding grass. When rescue teams arrived, they encountered scenes of horror.
"It did not even look like an airplane anymore," one policeman said. "I imagine this is what hell must be like."
One rescue team member said it was a miracle that anyone at all had survived the inferno. Of 172 crew and passengers on board, 19 made it out alive.
"Everything was black and burned," said another police officer. "The corpses were so charred that we burned our fingers carrying them away."
Too few survivors
About 60 ambulances rushed to the crash scene. But many simply turned right around, because in the end, there were so very few survivors to rescue.
The dead were taken by hearses to a hall in the Madrid fairgrounds. What followed brought up horrific memories for Madrid's residents of the aftermath of terror bombings on commuter trains four years ago in which 191 people were killed.
Now, after the plane crash, the very same fairgrounds building is being used as a mortuary. So far, all the bodies have been recovered and 39 of the victims have been identified. The nationalities of those killed have not been released. Identifying all the victims will take time, Spanish officials say.
Finding the cause
Experts have begun attempting to find the cause of the worst Spanish air disaster in 25 years.
Spanish Transport Minister Magdalena Alvarez said that the flight had had technical problems prior to takeoff, and that the pilot had already aborted one attempt at departure. The minister declined to say what technical problems were involved.
Spain's El Pais newspaper reported that a fire in one of the aircraft's engines may have caused the crash. Spanish media said air crash investigators have recovered two black box flight recorders and plan to study the data for clues to the disaster.
But that is little consolation to relatives, husbands and wives left behind
At the airports in Madrid and Gran Canaria, hundreds of relatives hung around for hours on Wednesday evening, waiting for word on their spouses, parents, siblings and children.
"My sons," wailed one woman. "My daughter."