Boeing jumbo explodes in fireball near Stansted

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A Jumbo jet burst into flames in mid-air last night and crashed in a fireball less than a mile from Stansted airport in Essex.

A Jumbo jet burst into flames in mid-air last night and crashed in a fireball less than a mile from Stansted airport in Essex.

All four crew members of the Korean Air Boeing 747 cargo flight were killed when the plane came down in fields less than two minutes after take-off. The aircraft exploded as it crashed near the village of Great Hallingbury, close to the M11.

The crash happened at around 6.40pm, after the plane took off for Malpensa airport in Milan, carrying what was believed to be a cargo of linen. As emergency services went to the scene, officials confirmed that three bodies had been found.

Ian Pogue, 41, who was on his way to the airport to catch a flight, said: "I had just come off the M11 towards the airport when I saw a huge ball of red and orange flames over to my right hand side. It seemed to last for about five seconds. It just went boom. I just saw these flames. It was just that one massive explosion and then it seemed to die down."

Joseph Tranter, 41, a farmer, said he saw the plane "explode like a giant firework". He went on: "Once the plane came down, a big mushroom cloud erupted into the air like a bomb had gone off. There were flames leaping about 300ft into the air - it was an absolute inferno with debris showering all over the place."

Annette Brooke-Taylor, who was in a motorway service station close to the airport, said: "There was a big explosion and huge flames in the sky. It lit up the sky and there was a tremendous noise."

Paul Leaman, of the Essex Ambulance Service, said that while, initially, a big operation had been launched it was rapidly scaled down because the plane had crashed in a field, avoiding houses. "We understand that none of [the crew] survived the impact," he said.

The village of Great Hallingbury was thrown into darkness after the Boeing cut through power cables supplying the area.

While there was no immediate clue to the cause of the crash, the Civil Aviation Authority said there would be a full inquiry. Investigators had already recovered the cockpit voice recorder and were also studying tapes of transmissions between the crew and air traffic controllers.

Among the investigators will be an American team of specialists. The US National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending experts from Boeing and the Federal Aviation Authority because the plane was made in America.

Last April nine people were killed when a Korean Air flight crashed in Shanghai, and in July a Korean airliner was involved in a near miss incident, also in China.

Immediately after the crash, Stansted airport was shut, with arrivals being diverted to Luton and other airports. While the M11 was kept open, junction eight, which leads to the airport, was closed. "It's standard procedure following an incident like this for the airport to close," said a Stansted spokeswoman. "We are awaiting further information and are in the hands of the police at the moment."

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions said the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, would visit Stansted later today. "Mr Prescott spoke to the Prime Minister within half an hour of the crash and it was agreed that he should visit Stansted where he will meet the emergency services and officials from the Air Accident Investigation Board," she said.

Mystery over crash plane's cargo

Investigators refused to reveal the cargo of the Korean Boeing 747-200F last night despite possessing the crashed plane's full cargo manifest, writes Gary Finn.

Witnesses at the crash site said they were warned by fire crews attending the wreckage that there were unspecified toxic materials present.

Accounts varied during the night, with some sources saying it was carrying linen and paint and one onlooker claiming to have seen "hundreds of CDs" strewn around.

Bernard Jenkin, the Tory transport spokesman, said: "If dangerous chemicals were part of the cargo the Civil Aviation Authority must have approved them."