Latin America Correspondent
All 189 people on board a Boeing 757 charter plane - most of them German tourists heading home from two weeks of tropical sunshine - were killed yesterday when their aircraft crashed into the Caribbean minutes after taking off from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. The cause of the crash remained a mystery - as did much about the flight.
By yesterday evening, 79 bodies, some mangled by sharks, some soaked in aviation fuel from a surface spill, had been pulled from the sea by Dominican rescuers or US Coast Guard vessels. Inflated but empty life- rafts held out the slimmest of hopes for survivors and rescuers said they would keep searching today .
They said it was possible survivors had escaped from the fuselage to life-rafts before being swept by eight-foot waves into the sea and to the mercy of the sharks. US coastguard rescuers said sharks had initially been seen circling among the debris, making it too dangerous to send in divers, but may have been driven off by the fuel spill. Equally possible, the rescuers said, was that the rafts broke free and inflated automatically on impact with the sea while the plane and all inside went down.
The bodies and fuel on the surface suggested the plane had broken up on impact but not exploded.
There were conflicting reports as to the cause of the crash, during stormy winds and rain, and over the plane's last few minutes. Tour operators said lightning may have damaged the plane's engines but German pilots dismissed that theory as unlikely on such a modern aircraft.
Dominican aviation officials gave totally contradictory accounts of the plane's last moments. A local air traffic controller at Puerto Plata as well as a senior investigator, Major Alan Arias, said the crew had given no warning of any problem and the plane simply disappeared from radar screens. "All the communication was normal," said Major Arias. "At no time did they speak of an emergency."
The Dominican Director of Civil Aviation, General Hector Roman, however, insisted that the pilot had radioed that he was turning back a few minutes after take-off and that his last words were "stand by".
US air safety officials who headed for the area hoped to get the true story from the plane's flight recorders somewhere beneath the waves.
Adding to the anger of victims' families waiting at the plane's scheduled destinations at Berlin's Schoenefeld airport and Frankfurt was the fact that the airline, Alas Nacionales (National Wings) of the Dominican Republic had leased the Boeing 757 at the last minute from the Istanbul-based Birgen Air to replace the Boeing 767 the airline normally uses on the route. There were conflicting versions as to whether the switch was because of a technical problem on the 767 or simply because there were too few passengers for the larger plane. It holds 300 passengers to the 757's 224.