Sao Paulo, July 19 (IANS) At least 177 people were confirmed dead in a plane crash at Congonhas Airport here, the worst aviation accident in Brazil’s history, the Spanish news agency EFE said.
Emergency workers had recovered 174 bodies of the victims at the accident scene Wednesday evening, bringing to 177 the number of confirmed fatalities. Three people died in hospitals after being severely injured when the airliner crashed into the building where they were working.
TAM Airlines presumed 200 people died when an Airbus-320 with 186 aboard crashed into a building near Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport Tuesday.
Authorities said that because of the heat of the fire that erupted inside the aircraft, it was virtually impossible for anyone to have survived.
The work of identifying the bodies will be difficult, judging from their condition, and the forensic exams will need to be supported by, among other things, the medical histories – including dental records, in all likelihood – of each victim.
Douglas Ferrari, a spokesman for the rescue crews, said the work of recovering and identifying the bodies could take at least five days.
TAM released a complete list of the plane’s occupants, but confusion prevailed regarding it at first because it said there were 176 people on board the plane, a figure later revised to 180 and then finally upped to a supposedly definitive total of 186: 162 passengers, 18 TAM employees and a six-person crew.
Among those confirmed dead is Brazilian lawmaker Julio Redecker, who was travelling from Porto Alegre to Sao Paulo to meet a connecting flight to the United States.
On Tuesday the TAM Airbus A320 slipped off the recently renovated runway that was wet with rain, glided across one of the busiest highways in the metropolis and rammed a TAM Express freight depository, a petrol station and another building, setting off a huge blaze. It took at least seven hours to bring the fire under control.
Some media reports said the runway had been opened before the work had been completed. According to experts, a sheet of water forms on the runway when it rains making it difficult for planes’ tyres to grip the surface.
Pilots said the runway still lacked safety features such as drainage slots to facilitate the removal of water in case of rain. Some government spokespersons pointed to the possibility that human error was to blame for the accident.
The head of the communications office of the presidency, Franklin Martins, said that while any information about the cause of the accident could be premature, the pilot apparently attempted an ill-advised take-off after the plane touched ground for fear it would be difficult to complete the landing.
TAM President Marco Antonio Bologna told reporters it would be untimely to attribute the tragedy to the condition of the runway – an explanation offered by aviation experts in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
Bologna said dozens of landings and takeoffs in rainy conditions at Congonhas (Airport) have been logged without experiencing any type of problem.
He and other executives of the airline defended the pilots and guaranteed that the aircraft was in a perfect operating condition.
TAM Vice President Alberto Fajerman said both pilots were very competent aircraft commanders, each with more than 10,000 flight hours.
“The two pilots were very experienced. There was not a pilot in training (in the cockpit), in contrast to what the press began saying,” said Jajerman.
The airbus was acquired by TAM in December 2006 after being bought from Costa Rica-based TACA, the Brazilian airline said.
“It had 26,320 flight hours and was in perfect condition (in terms of its) maintenance and flyability,” TAM said.
Smoke and the penetrating odour of burned plastic still pervaded the crash site through Wednesday as the rescue teams worked amid the charred and twisted ruins of the plane, and the petrol station and building it crashed into.
The announcement of the accident caused passengers’ relatives to clamour for information from TAM about the fate of their loved ones, both in Porto Alegre and in Sao Paulo, and there were scenes of sadness and near-hysteria involving distraught relatives in both cities.
The company placed counselling and aid units at the disposal of the relatives, some of whom on Wednesday decided to fly to Sao Paulo to identify and recover the remains of their loved ones, while others gathered in a centre near the medical examiner’s office that had been set up to receive them.
The authorities have launched an investigation into the causes of the accident.
They said the A320’s black box had already been recovered in “good condition” and that it would be sent to the US for detailed analysis.
On Monday, another aircraft also skidded off a runway at Congonhas, an airport used for domestic flights and which handles the more air traffic than any other airport in Brazil.
In the wake of Tuesday’s catastrophe, Brazil’s civil aviation authorities banned further use of the Congonhas main runway on rainy days pending completion of the accident probe.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of official mourning in memory of the victims, called an emergency cabinet meeting and cancelled all his scheduled activities as well as several domestic trips planned for this week.
Tuesday’s crash came less than a year after a Boeing jet operated by Gol airline went down in the Amazon jungle killing all 154 people on board after a midair collision with a corporate jet, which was able to land safely. Until this week, that accident was Brazil’s worst-ever air disaster.