Dutch police said 100 to 200 people were feared dead after the Boeing 747-200F, a cargo aircraft, crashed into two nine-storey buildings in a heavily populated south-eastern suburb of Amsterdam. The three crew and one female passenger died instantly.
Television reports showed horrific scenes, with huge fires blazing in the blocks. If the casualties are confirmed, it will be the worst death toll for victims who were not passengers.
Flight 1862 had taken off from Schiphol airport at 6.22pm, en route from New York to Tel Aviv. It sent out a distress call 10 minutes later after discovering that two of its four engines were on fire, the Netherlands' government aviation service spokesman said.
It turned back towards the airport, and was reported to be jettisoning fuel over a lake as it descended. But the crew apparently lost control and the aircraft crashed at 6.45pm. Two engines were later recovered from a lake east of the city, nine miles from the crash site.
Police said that up to 200 people may have been killed in the inferno that followed. The aircraft caused fires in at least two large blocks of flats, each containing 240 homes; about 50 took a direct hit, police said.
Fires were raging around Duivendrecht suburb, and residents were scrabbling through the rubble of the Kruithof and Groeneveen blocks, searching for survivors. Looters moved in to exploit the chaos. Thieves descended on two shopping centres in the suburb of Bijimermeer, near the crash site, and looters were seen running through evacuated flats hunting for anything they could take. Dutch radio reported that dozens of people jumped from the windows of flats to escape. The city issued an emergency call for blood donations, and Amsterdam Medical Centre Hospital said 20 burn cases had been brought in.
The area has a lot of council-owned housing, much of it home for immigrants from the Netherlands' former Caribbean colonies.
Witnesses reported dreadful scenes of destruction. 'They saw a large fireball. As it was dark and clear, they could see it happen,' a KLM Royal Dutch Airways official said. Two hours after the crash, the buildings were still burning fiercely.
In Israel, Pini Harovi, manager of El Al control centre, told Israeli army radio: 'At this stage the details that we know are that a 747 cargo plane that was taking off on its way from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv reported malfunctions with two of its engines. It tried to land, and during the attempt, the aircraft crashed in the area of the airport.'
A police official said the pilot 'informed us that he had engine failure, he was trying to go back to the airport and he fell into a building. The last information was mayday and then it was off, and we think it was the time of the crash.'
The aircraft was probably carrying 70 to 80 tons of highly inflammable aviation fuel in its wings, said Chris Darke, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots' Association. The pilot would not have had 'a cat in hell's chance' of landing with only two engines on a fully-laden aircraft, he said.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, sent a telegram of condolence to the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers. 'I was deeply shocked at the horrible tragedy. Our heart is with you as we mourn the death of Dutch and Israelis alike,' a spokesman quoted him as saying.
The 747, which first entered service in 1970, has a good safety record. All main systems are in triplicate and the structure is constructed to absorb stress if a part fails.
There are about 1,000 Boeing 747s on order or in service around the world. Before last night's crash, there had been 22 lost in service, six as a result of terrorist or military operations, and a further five destroyed by fires on the ground or in hangars. The remaining 11 losses were crashes.
Schiphol air traffic control had earlier said a bomb was the suspected cause of the explosion, but that possibility was later discounted. In Jerusalem, the state radio said that according to Israeli officials there were 'no signs of a terror attack'.
Fears of terrorist attacks have led El Al to have its own security checks at airports on top of those provided by host countries. On passenger aircraft, all its baggage is screened. Its cargo is always put through a decompression chamber which triggers compression fuses on bombs.
Lee Silverman, UK spokesman for El Al, said last night that 'all the signals are that there were engine problems on the flight'.
The Dutch embassy in London issued a telephone number for people concerned about relatives: 010 31-20-567-0222.
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