Sabotage fear as 80 die in crash

Click to follow
The Independent Online
UP TO 80 people were killed when a Cuban commercial airliner plunged into a suburb of the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, on Saturday and burst into flames, apparently after at least four failed attempts to take off.

Nine victims were found on the ground in the El Rosario suburb, on the edge of the Mariscal Sucre international airport. They included five boys who had been playing football.

Early reports point to engine failure but Cuban technical and security experts were flying to Quito to investigate any hint of sabotage, after threats by US-based Cuban exiles, dedicated to overthrowing Fidel Castro. The exiles have warned they would mount terrorists attacks against Cuban planes.

Most of the Quito victims were Ecuadoreans but they also included three Italians, two Spaniards, two Chileans, an Argentinian and a Jamaican who was identified as Susan Elizabeth Jackson.

Red Cross workers said 15 people on the Tupolev-154, from the state- owned Cubana de Aviacion airline, had survived by falling through holes in the fuselage before the flames erupted. The plane was on a circular route from Havana to Quito with a planned stop-over in the Ecuadorean coastal city of Guayaquil.

Survivors spoke of the several take-off attempts. A Chilean passenger, Alvaro Martinez, told Ecuadorean television he had counted four before the fateful one. "On the first attempt, the engines sounded really ugly," he said. "A flight attendant told us there was a problem. After the fourth attempt, I went to the cockpit to ask the pilot what was going on. He told me they were waiting for an air pump to get the plane started again. On the final attempt, they couldn't seem to get up enough speed to get off the ground and the pilot tried to brake. I said to myself `God help us, we're not going to make it'."

Witnesses said the plane seemed to rise slightly but its undercarriage clipped a runway perimeter wall and its nose caught the roof of a car repair workshop before the plunge through football fields, players and spectators scattering in terror.

It was the third crash in almost the same spot in 14 years. Mariscal Sucre airport lies in an Andean mountain hollow at 9,300ft. The site has been widely criticised because of its position in the heart of a busy working-class suburb.

Ecuador's newly-elected President, Jamil Mahuad, promised he would commission a study on building a new airport outside the capital.