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54 bodies recovered in Brazil air crash

The plane lost control on landing at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, which is known for slippery runways.
Reuters | By Mario Andrada, Sao Paulo
UPDATED ON JUL 18, 2007 06:22 PM IST

At least 200 people, including victims on the ground, were feared dead after a Brazilian TAM airline jet with as many as 180 passengers on board crashed into a gasoline station while trying to land at Congonhas Airport - the country's busiest air hub.

The TAM Airbus A320, which had taken off from the southern city of Porto Alegre, skidded on one of the airport's wet runways and smashed into the fuel depot and another building, setting off a huge blaze around 6:50 pm (2150 GMT) on Tuesday, according to state-run Infraero that administers the country's airports.

The flames quickly spread to other nearby buildings, and parts of at least one building collapsed amid multiple explosions, Brazilian broadcaster Globonews reported.

Dozens of ambulances and 400 firefighters were on the scene to contain the blaze and to prevent fuel trucks in the area from blowing up, reported DPA. The fire was largely under control.

The plane was carrying 180 passengers, not 176 as previously thought, TAM airline said later.

According to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Sao Paolo state Governor Jose Serra, citing firefighters, said all passengers onboard were almost certainly dead as the temperature had reached 1,000 degrees Celsius inside the aircraft.

Rescuers said the death toll also included airport staff that happened to be in the vicinity when the accident occurred.

Among the passengers were German-born Member of Parliament Julio Redecker of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the former president of the premier league football club Internacional Porto Alegre, Rogerio Amoretty, said DPA.

Rescue operations continued through the night and some 54 bodies had been recovered. According to the state Ministry of Safety and numerous other casualties had been taken to hospitals, media reports said.

In the meantime, the flight recorder has also been found.

According to the Spanish news agency EFE, TAM said the Congonhas Airport was the plane's final destination, but Infraero said that its final stop was to be the Confins Airport, near the city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state.

Eyewitnesses told a local TV that there was a huge explosion when the plane hit the gas station and flames 20 meters high erupted.

The accident caused an adjacent building to catch fire and, according to media reports, an unknown number of people were trapped in an elevator there.

The civil defence service said some 27 buildings near the accident scene had been evacuated for safety reasons as buildings threatened to collapse.

The cause of the accident was not immediately known. In a communiqué, TAM said that a company investigative team was at the accident site, adding that it had activated an assistance programme for victims and their relatives.

Residents of the Sao Paulo neighbourhood of Moema, adjoining the airport, reported panic during the explosions set off by the crash.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he was "deeply concerned" and promised a full investigation into the accident, according to a government spokesman.

Lula declared a three-day state of mourning after calling an emergency meeting of his cabinet in Brasilia.

Brazil's most recent major air disaster was in September 2006 when a Boeing 737 operated by Brazilian carrier Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes crashed after clipping wings with a Legacy business jet over Brazil's Amazon rainforest, killing 154 people. The Legacy landed safely.

Since then air-traffic controllers have gone on a work slowdown, claiming equipment was outdated and risky. The issue remains unresolved.

Lula, however, has rejected the protests as "terrorism" and said Brazil had one of the most up-to-date air-control systems worldwide.

The opposition has repeatedly threatened with a parliamentary inquiry commission over the crisis.

Congonhas, the second-largest airport serving the Brazilian financial centre Sao Paulo, was shut down following the accident.

A day earlier, another plane slid off the runway at the same airport and came to rest to in a grassy area nearby.

Congonhas Airport has been under criticism for some time.

The airport's worst accident occurred in October 1996 when a Fokker-100 plane from TAM airline slammed into homes in a densely populated area of Sao Paulo, killing all 96 people on board and at least eight on the ground.

Constructed in the 1930s in a then deserted area, the airport today is located in the wealthy Moema quarter, surrounded by high-rise buildings, hotels and shopping centres.

Only in February a judge prohibited larger planes to land there, saying the situation was particularly dangerous in rainy weather. However, his decision has since then been annulled by another judge.

Modernizing work on the main runway was completed at the end of June. But aviation engineer Jorge Medeiros said that the runway had been cleared for use although it lacked grooves to improve its safety.

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