The Amsterdam Disaster: 250 feared buried in rubble of Dutch flats wrecked by jet

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RESCUE workers were preparing last night to move into the blackened remains of two blocks of flats near Amsterdam, in search of 250 inhabitants and visitors feared dead after a burning El Al cargo plane with two missing engines ploughed into their homes on Sunday night.

The mayor of Amsterdam, Ed van Thijn, described the accident in a trembling voice as 'the biggest catastrophe in the post-war history of the Netherlands'.

He said that the work was going 'irritatingly slowly' because it had proved impossible to shore up the remains of the two buildings into which the Boeing 747 jumbo jet crashed soon after take-off from Schiphol airport, 10 miles away from the city centre.

'We are dealing with a disaster of a tremendous size beyond our imagination. The number of missing people is increasing hour after hour,' he said.' At this moment, more than 250 people are thought dead, hidden under the concrete.'

By last night, six bodies had been recovered and nine more pinpointed in the wreckage but not pulled out.

Dutch officials explained that they had raised their estimate of the number of casualties after discovering that many people were living unregistered in the council blocks, situated on an estate south-east of Amsterdam that houses many illegal immigrants.

The authorities have given up hope that anyone trapped in the wreckage could still be alive. Last night fire services began to drain a pond behind the buildings, hoping to recover both the 'black box' of the jumbo jet, and the bodies of people who might have jumped out of flats on the upper floors.

The Boeing 747 was carrying full fuel tanks and more than 100 tonnes of goods - electronics, perfumes and textiles - when it crashed.

Despite the arrival of military and civilian investigation teams from Israel, from Boeing, and Pratt and Whitney, the manufacturer of the engines, Dutch Justice Ministry officials still had nothing to say about the possible cause of the disaster.

They refused to discount sabotage, but said that they had not yet discovered any evidence that suggested it; the only theory they were willing to dismiss was that stray birds had damaged one of the jet's engines, two of which were recovered from a lake near the crash site.

'At this moment nothing is ruled out . . . But our first thoughts are not in that direction. The first impression is that there was a technical problem,' said the Dutch Transport Minister, Hanja Maij-Weggen .

Boeing last night said that the Amsterdam accident bore striking similarities to the previous crash involving a 747 cargo plane. A China Airways freighter 747- 200F, the same version of the plane equipped with the same type of engines, crashed last December in Taiwan after reporting engine failures.

Eric Nordholt, the chief of Amsterdam's police, said that 600 officers had been on duty to keep crowds away from the 300 rescue workers during the night. Anti- riot crews from the Dutch special patrol group were among them; there were reports of looting, he added, but it was not widespread.

A political row was brewing in the Netherlands last night as newspapers and television stations accused the authorities of discriminating against immigrant inhabitants of the low-rent government housing by failing to give information on the disaster in their mother tongues.

There were also reports that residents of the council estate in the suburb of Bijlmermeer where the disaster took place had been kept away from their homes by over-zealous security.

'You'll appreciate that we're working under very stressed and emotional circumstances,' said a spokesman, who promised that small groups of residents would soon be allowed to return home to pick up their belongings.

Both Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and her Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, wore mourning black as they toured the smoking rubble yesterday afternoon.

The fire service is still stretched by the job of pulling corpses from the wreckage.

Monique Smits, of the city government, said the risk of buildings collapsing on firemen was making work very difficult. The job is expected to take until the end of the week.

The Scottish emergency services which dealt with the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster in 1988 yesterday offered their help to the Duch authorities.

(Photograph omitted)