Nation/World

Jetliner Crashes In Guam At Least 35 Of 254 People Aboard Survive As Rescuers Look For More In Thick Jungle

A Korean Air jet carrying 254 people crashed and burned in a rainstorm early today, and rescuers who trudged through the jungle with flashlights found at least 35 survivors. Navy crews tried to crack open the fuselage to see if anyone else could be saved.

Flight 801, a Boeing 747 from Seoul, South Korea, was carrying mostly Korean tourists, including several couples on their honeymoon, when it went down in the lush green hills as it was coming in for a landing in the middle of the night. At least 13 Americans were on board.

“There was a big ball of fire just before the crash,” said Rudy Delos-Santos, reporter at radio station KOKU who lives near the crash site on Nimitz Hill, three miles from the airport on this U.S. island possession. “The plane plowed through the jungle for a minute or so before it came to a rest.”

He said he ran to the area through the darkness and got within about 90 yards before law enforcement officials stopped him.

“The fire was still going, and I could see the silhouettes of bodies in and around the plane,” Delos-Santos said. “It was like a giant bonfire.”

Rescue workers had to take breaks to get fresh air because the smell of burned fuel and flesh was unbearable, he said. The survivors came from the front of the plane, which was largely intact. The back was in ruins.

“It’s flaming and smoking. There’s quite a bit of smoke. There’s a military helicopter hovering overhead providing light,” said Edward Poppe, owner of radio station KSTO. “They’re carrying them one at a time up the hill, those that survived - and there’s only a few.”

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities have concluded there was no fire and no distress call from the pilot prior to the crash, as was previously believed. The official said earlier accounts contained information that proved unreliable.

As the plane crashed, it snagged a pipeline, causing the line to rupture and spill about 1,000 gallons of aviation fuel. But Navy Lt. Commander Jeff Alderson emphasized the fuel did not catch fire because the break came away from the crash site, and the flow of fuel from the Naval Station Guam to Anderson Air Force Base was stopped immediately by automatic shutoff valves,

Some witnesses reported hearing an explosion before the jet went down, said Ginger Cruz, a spokeswoman for Guam’s Gov. Carl T.C. Gutierrez. Of the 254 people on board, 23 were crew members, said John Lim, an airline spokesman in Guam.

Gutierrez, who lives just a few miles from the crash site, was among the first on the scene and began pulling survivors from the burning wreckage.

“It was eerie. As I got close to the scene I could hear the screams,” he said. “We only had a single flashlight. We had to follow the sounds to find them. … You could not stand there and hear those screams go on and not do it.”

Among the four or five survivors he pulled from the plane was an 11-year-old Japanese girl he found trying to tend to a critically injured flight attendant. The girl suffered only cuts and bruises.

“I had to go to the hospital with her,” Gutierrez said. “She wouldn’t let my hand go.”

The National Transportation Safety Board sent an 18-member team from Washington to investigate. The lead investigator will be Greg Feith, who headed the investigation of the ValuJet crash last year in the Everglades that was blamed on a fire aboard the plane.

NTSB Member George Black Jr. said the voice and flight-data recorders had been recovered from the wreckage.

The crash site was at the bottom of a ravine in a dense jungle, inaccessible by road. Rescuers using flashlights had to make their way through mud and razor-sharp sawgrass up to 8 feet high to reach the wreckage.

Two Navy CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, with pilots wearing night-vision goggles, airlifted dozens of survivors to area hospitals. The injured included several people with burns and broken bones. One person taken alive from the plane died at the hospital.

With the jet still smoldering, Navy Seabees construction crews used a bulldozer to carve a makeshift road into the site. Backhoes then began moving in to tear open the unburned parts of the wreckage to check for more possible survivors.

Officials at the rescue command center on Guam have put the number of confirmed survivors at 35. The Navy reported 33 survivors, and Korean Air estimates have ranged from 49 to 55.

South Korean President Kim Young-sam issued a statement on the crash, saying “I can’t suppress the overflowing sorrow.”

The airport control tower lost contact with the plane around 1:50 a.m. Wednesday (8:50 a.m. EDT Tuesday). Police confirmed about 40 minutes later that the plane had crashed.

A landing system known as the glide slope, which leads planes to the runway, had not been in service at the airport since last month, according to sources at the FAA, speaking on condition of anonymity. According to a notice the agency sent pilots, the guidance system was to be down for maintenance until Sept. 12.

When glide slope guidance is not available, pilots can use other methods, including an electronic device that gives them their distance from the airport. Knowing that distance, they follow a stairstep pattern to the runway.

The tiny island of Guam is the United States’ westernmost possession. Its population is 150,000. Guam is 4,000 miles west of Honolulu and 2,200 southeast of Seoul. Roughly one-third of Guam’s 212 square miles is taken up by U.S. military bases.

Map of area.

MEMO: Changed from Idaho edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TEAM LEAVES FROM FAIRCHILD A Fairchild Air Force Base crew is flying 32 members of a National Transportation Safety Board team to Guam to investigate Tuesday’s crash of a South Korean 747 jet. The group from around the United States was scheduled to leave Spokane about 1:30 a.m. today aboard a KC-135 tanker for the nonstop flight to Guam. Fairchild was chosen to fly the team because the route from Spokane to Guam is faster than from most other Air Force bases, said Fairchild spokeswoman Lt. Amy Holton.

Changed from Idaho edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TEAM LEAVES FROM FAIRCHILD A Fairchild Air Force Base crew is flying 32 members of a National Transportation Safety Board team to Guam to investigate Tuesday’s crash of a South Korean 747 jet. The group from around the United States was scheduled to leave Spokane about 1:30 a.m. today aboard a KC-135 tanker for the nonstop flight to Guam. Fairchild was chosen to fly the team because the route from Spokane to Guam is faster than from most other Air Force bases, said Fairchild spokeswoman Lt. Amy Holton.



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