SAO PAULO, Brazil – A Brazilian passenger jet crashed and burst into flames Tuesday after skidding off a runway and barreling across a busy highway, officials said. All 176 people on board were feared dead in what would be Brazil’s deadliest air disaster, and at least 15 were killed on the ground.
The death toll officially stood at 40 after the crash of the Airbus-320 owned by TAM airlines, but that number was expected to rise sharply as rescue workers, forensic experts and doctors scoured the wreckage in South America’s largest city.
The crash – Brazil’s second major disaster in less than a year – happened in a driving rain on a runway at Congonhas airport that had been criticized for being too short. The TAM airlines jet slammed into a gas station and a building owned by the airline, said Jose Leonardi Mota, a spokesman with airport authority Infraero.
An official said early today that 25 charred bodies had been recovered from what was left of the plane and that 15 people who were on the ground either died at the scene or in hospitals.
Ten more people on the ground were injured and hospitalized, according to a Sao Paulo state public safety media official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of department policy.
“I was told that the temperature inside the plane was 1,000 degrees (Celsius), so the chances of there being any survivors are practically nil,” Sao Paulo State Gov. Jose Serra told reporters at the airport. That temperature in Celsius is equivalent to about 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning for the victims, and presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach told reporters late Tuesday that no cause would be immediately released because it was premature to do so.
TAM Linhas Aereas Flight 3054 was en route to Sao Paulo from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. TAM airlines said there were 176 people on board – 170 passengers and six crew members. A Brazilian congressman was among those on the flight, his aide said.
The crash highlights the country’s increasing aviation woes. In September, a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest, causing the passenger jet to crash, killing 154 people.
Since then, there have been questions about the country’s underfunded air traffic control systems, deficient radar system and the airlines’ ability to cope with a surge in travelers. Controllers – concerned about being made scapegoats – have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing lengthy delays and cancellations.
TAM worker Elias Rodrigues Jesus, walking near the site just as the crash happened, said that the jet exploded in between the gas station and a warehouse owned by TAM.
“All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook,” Jesus said. “I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur.”
Critics have said for years that such an accident was possible at the airport because its runway is too short for large planes landing in rainy weather. Two planes had slipped off the runway in rainy weather on Monday, but no one was injured in either incident.
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