Many dead in Madrid airport plane crash

Rescue vehicles gather near the site of the Spanair crash KEYSTONE AP Daniel Ochoa de Olza

One hundred and fifty-three people are dead following the crash of a Spanair jet at Madrid's Barajas International Airport.

This content was published on August 20, 2008 - 22:14

It's the worst aviation accident in Europe in the past 15 years. Three days of official mourning have been announced in Spain.

The plane, carrying 164 passengers and nine crew, overshot the runway as it took off on Wednesday afternoon and burst into flames only a few feet off the ground. It then broke up.

Witnesses said the left engine had been on fire.

The plane was bound for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

Of the 20 survivors, 19 were badly burned and were taken to specialised burns units.

Devastation

The Spanish newspaper El Pais said on its website that take-off had been delayed for an hour, possibly because of technical problems.

The airport was closed immediately after the accident as fire engines and rescue vehicles rushed to the spot, where a column of smoke could be seen.

A rescue worker said the plane was burnt out and full of bodies. "It was a wonder that anyone survived," according to one witness.

Hospitals in the Madrid area were asked to prepare for an influx of victims.

The fire took some two hours to extinguish and the airport reopened at about the same time.

Cause unknown

Spanair said in a press release that the names of passengers and crew would not be released until next-of-kin had been informed. It announced a special number for relatives and friends to call for information.

It is thought that the passengers included four Germans and two Swedes. Details of the nationalities of the others have not been made public.

The company held a news conference shortly after the crash, but its commercial director refused to speculate on the cause. He said Spanair would provide the civil aviation authorities with all the information at its disposal to help the inquiry.

The airline chartered a plane to bring relatives from Las Palmas to Madrid, and also prepared a team of specially trained counsellors.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero interrupted his holiday to go to the scene. Several other ministers also went to the airport.

Three days of mourning have been declared in the region. Foreign leaders, including those from Russia, Germany and Italy, have expressed their condolences.

The MD-80 plane involved had had a complete overhaul in January. The plane, made by McDonnell Douglas, enjoys a good safety reputation.

The accident is the worst in western Europe for at least 15 years, and the worst in Spain for nearly 25.

The accident with the highest number of casualties ever recorded happened in the Spanish resort of Tenerife in 1977, when two planes collided on the runway, killing 585 people.

swissinfo with agencies

Spanair

Spanair is 100% owned by the Scandinavian SAS group.

It is a member of the Star Alliance, to which Switzerland's airline Swiss also belongs.

It is Spain's second largest airline after Iberia.

It operates mainly on internal and European routes.

More than half its fleet of 65 aircraft are MD-80s, the same type as the plane which crashed.

Last year the airline carried 10.6 million passengers.

This year it has made losses, and in July announced restructuring plans, including staff cuts and the dropping of several non-strategic routes.

Spanair pilots had threatened strike action only hours before the accident.

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The worst air accidents in western Europe since 1993

2005 Greece. A Boeing of the Cypriot Helios airline crashed near Athens; 121 dead.

2002 Germany. A Russian Tupolev and a DHL cargo plane collided in mid-air over Überlingen, when being directed by Swiss air control; 77 dead.

2000 France. An Air France Concorde crashed on take off in Paris; 113 dead.

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