Air Disaster: Asia's devastating smog blamed for Airbus crash that killed 234

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The Independent Online
Indonesia's worst air disaster has claimed all the passengers aboard a domestic flight. The smog enveloping much of South-East Asia was a factor in the disaster, writes Matthew Chance

Rescue workers were last night sifting through the wreckage of an Indonesian airliner which crashed as it was coming in to land yesterday on the remote, smog hit island of Sumatra. The state television quoted the Transport Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto as saying that all 234 passengers on board had died. "We have taken out more than 100 badly burned bodies from the wreckage," said one official of the National Search and Rescue Agency. "There appears to be no survivors."

The aircraft, an Airbus A300 run by Garuda Airlines, the Indonesian national carrier, was approaching the town of Medan on a domestic flight from Jakarta when it burst into flames in mid-air, according to the television reports.

Fragments of smouldering wreckage were strewn over a wide area of forest, near the village of Buah Nabar, about three kilometres off the main road.

Hours after the impact, police in the area said that the aircraft's shattered fuselage was still in flames and could not be approached.

An emergency rescue operation was under way in the area on the northern tip of the Indonesian island. Ambulances were arriving at the site late into the night and the Indonesian Air Force has been ferrying bodies to the local St Elizabeth Hospital which was put on standby with 20 doctors.

The efforts of the security forces and the emergency services were hampered by choking smog caused mainly by forest fires raging across Indonesia, which have blanketed South-East Asia for several weeks.

Accident investigators have yet to comment on the possible cause of the crash. But residents in the area of the disaster have spoken of poor visibility because of the thick fog, and aviation officials are also linking the crash with the smog.

One airport official in Medan said the pilots would not have been able to seen further than 400 metres ahead at the time of the crash; the authorities have cancelled all further flights in the region "because of the haze" the official said.

Neighbouring countries had already moved to prevent smog related catastrophes in their airspace, shutting down the often poorly equipped regional airports affected by the haze.

In Malaysia, its skies darkened by thick grey smog, five airports in the states of Penang, Kedah, Perak, and Terengganu were declared unsafe for civil air traffic, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded.

As the cloud of smog, which has mixed with traffic fumes and other pollutants on its course from the forest fires, reached southern Thailand on Thursday, the authorities there diverted all flights away from affected districts. Many were sent further north to the tourist island of Phuket, which is itself shrouded with a choking haze.

But accident investigators will also be looking hard at Indonesia's own air safety record which, with or without smog, has been chequered.

The country has so far this year experienced four serious accidents, of which flight GA-152 is the biggest.

On 17 July, 30 people died when a Sempati Airlines Fokker 27 crashed just after taking off from Bandung airport in West Java on route for Jakarta. In the same month, an aircraft operated by the domestic carrier Merpati crashed in Malaku province, killing three.

In April, 15 people were killed in another domestic route accident, also in a Merpati plane. Indonesia's previous worst air disaster was in 1992, when an air force Hercules C-130 crashed into a Jakarta suburb, killing 136 people.