Spain in shock as Barajas crash kills over 140

21st August 2008, Comments 0 comments

A Spanair plane with 175 aboard bursts into flames just seconds after taking off from the runway in Madrid.

21 August 2008

MADRID -- More than 140 people were killed when a plane plunged to the ground and burst into flames just seconds after taking off from Madrid's Barajas Airport on Wednesday afternoon.

Emergency services confirmed Wednesday night that 28 survivors had been pulled from the wreckage of the aircraft, which was bound for Gran Canaria and was being operated by Spanair in a code-sharing agreement with Lufthansa.

Germans, Dutch, Swedes and Spaniards were thought to be on board.

"The plane was in pieces, and it was full of bodies," an airport worker said.

Witnesses said the MD-82 plane, with 175 passengers and crew aboard, plunged to the ground after climbing just a few metres above the end of the runway at 2.45pm. Some witnesses said its left engine appeared to have caught fire.

Fire and ambulance crews arrived at the scene and took the injured to hospitals. Nineteen survivors were described as being in a critical condition, including two with burns to more than 90 percent of their bodies.

"It was the closest thing to hell I have seen in my life, the bodies were burning, we burnt ourselves trying to grab them," said one Civil Guard officer as he returned from the crash site. "There is nothing left that resembles an aircraft, it's horrendous, everything is burnt."

The head of the emergency team at Barajas, Ervigio Corral, described the crash site as the worst tragedy he had seen since the Madrid train bombings on 11 March 2004. "Bodies were strewn everywhere... we saw a lot of children," he said.

Spanair flight JK5022 and Lufthansa flight LH255 was due to have taken off at 1 p.m. and left Barajas' Terminal 4 at 1.05pm. However, the plane returned to its departure gate half-an-hour later for "technical reasons" before finally departing at 2.45 p.m., representatives of Spanair and Spanish airports authority AENA said.

Spanair said it was too soon to say what caused the crash.

"Our priority is to help the victims and their families... it is too soon to speculate about the causes," Héctor Sandoval, the airline's human resources manager, said in a press conference in the company's headquarters in Palma de Mallorca.

Pilots' union SEPLA urged caution in drawing conclusions about the causes of the crash and noted that the pilots and crew were "fully qualified."

Airport officials halted all flights from Barajas after the crash. They allowed takeoffs and landings again after 4 p.m. Fires caused by the plane were extinguished an hour later. Police blocked roads near the airport to speed the evacuation of the injured.

Relatives and friends of people on the flight gathered at Gran Canaria airport and at Barajas and were provided with counseling by Red Cross psychiatrists.

Spanair said it has chartered a plane to bring relatives to Madrid. Two telephone numbers (800 400 200 and 97 174 75 22) are providing relatives with information.

On Wednesday night, authorities used Madrid's convention center IFEMA as a makeshift morgue.

"We are trying to identify the bodies and we are letting relatives know as soon as possible," said Public Works Minister Magdalena Álvarez, whose portfolio covers Spain's airports. "This is a horrible accident and a tragedy."

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy both cut short their summer vacations to return to Madrid to visit the crash site and meet with victims and their relatives.

Meanwhile, Spain's Olympic team donned black armbands in a gesture of condolence, while the Spanish flag was flown at half mast at the Olympic Village in Beijing.

Spanish King expresses pain
King Juan Carlos, who a spokesman said had been following events throughout the day, issued a statement expressing the Royal Family's pain, consternation and horror at the tragedy.

Álvarez said a seven-person investigation commission had been created within her ministry to begin probing the causes of the crash. "We will make our findings known as soon as we have them," she said.

The MD-82 plane, built by Boeing, was around 20 years old and had last passed an inspection in January.

Spanair, Spain's second-largest airline and a unit of Scandinavian carrier SAS, announced plans in July to lay off 1,062 staff and cut routes after heavy financial losses caused by rising competition and higher fuel prices.

Just hours before the crash, Spanair's pilots had threatened to strike.

[El Pais / A Eatwell / Expatica]

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