Air crash victims to be flown home

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The Independent Online

Dubrovnik and AGENCIES

On barren grey peaks soaring from the sparkling blue water of the Adriatic, the brilliant white tail of a US military jet marks the spot where 35 people died on Wednesday afternoon. Then, thick cloud obscured the hillside, blinding the pilot to the fact that he was flying parallel to his proper course until it was too late.

Yesterday, in bright sunshine, US helicopters hovered above a base camp close to the wreckage, winching in containers with the remains of the victims, who included Ron Brown, the US Commerce Secretary. One woman, a crew member, was found alive in the tail section but died on her way to hospital.

But US sources said most of the bodies were disfigured beyond recognition; they will be flown today to Dover air base in Delaware, so that forensic experts can determine the identities of 33 Americans and two Croats.

President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, who declared yesterday a national day of mourning, was expected in Dubrovnik today for a farewell ceremony.

A team of 26 US investigators sifted through the debris - most of the fuselage was shattered on impact - searching for an explanation, their difficult task compounded by the absence of a black-box flight recorder aboard the jet.

"The plane appeared from the clouds like a ghost. We said to one another, the plane must be lost, it won't fare well" said Ana Duplica, who lives on the coast road in the village of Plat, at the foot of the peak. "After it disappeared again into the fog we heard a loud noise as if he was taking off," added her husband, Miho, suggesting that the pilot had tried to climb out of danger. "The sound changed - and then nothing."

From the testimony of local villagers, it seems the plane flew in a straight line, parallel to the course it should have taken, two to three kilometres north-east of the correct pass, which is marked by radio beacons in Kolocep, Lokrum and Cavtat.

The pilot contacted the tower to say he was over Kolocep and descending normally; but instead of passing Lokrum, he flew over Gornji Brgat, a village three kilometres inland and eight kilometres from the crash site. "It flew right over us" said Luce Basic, who returned to her home in the war-damaged village only three weeks ago.

"It was much louder than usual - when the planes are landing at Cilipi [airport] they go much further out towards the sea," she added. "We are really sorry, it's a great tragedy."

In Srebreno, which lies between Brgat and Plat, it was the same story. "The normal flight path is on the far side of that hill past the church and straight on - instead, it came overhead," said Anto Kristovic, a cafe owner. "The engine sounded unusual," Mr Kristovic said, but the fog was so heavy he could barely see across the road.

Mr and Mrs Deplica were inside their house, which has terraced balconies facing the sea, but went out in the rain to investigate the roar. "The noise was unusual," Mr Deplica said. "I came out and I saw the plane, its wings and engines climbing back into the cloud." Normally, said the couple, aircraft fly between two small islands off the coast and over the Cavtat beacon.

In Washington, a sombre President Bill Clinton planted a tree at the White House yesterday to honour Mr Brown and the 34 others who died.

Mr Clinton and his wife, Hillary, shovelled earth around a blossoming white dogwood tree set in a grove filled with ivy and white and yellow daffodils on the White House South Lawn.

"Last year, as we prepared to go to Oklahoma City, Hillary and I planted a dogwood tree here in honour of the public servants who lost their lives there," Mr Clinton told reporters.

"This year, as we prepare to go back almost a year later, we're planting, sadly, another tree in honour of Secretary Brown and all the public servants of the United States and the citizens who lost their lives in the plane crash," he added.

In addition to Brown and the six-member crew, the victims included 12 US businessmen, 12 US government officials, a European development bank official, a New York Times reporter, a Croatian interpreter and a Croatian photographer.