As Air Force investigators sifted through the burnt-out Boeing 737 yesterday, airline officials confirmed that 79 of the 103 people who had been onboard Tuesday night's Lapa flight 3142 to Cordoba were dead. Another person who was not on the flight also died, apparently of a heart attack.
Angel Medina, a coffee seller said: "My van was 80 metres away and I saw the plane burst into flames, then fall and then there was a huge explosion and a black mushroom cloud. I approached and could see shapes in the shadows, wrecked cars and people thrown on to the ground. I couldn't tell if they were alive or dead, but they all were bleeding. It was chaos."
Two dozen people, including the pilot, managed to get out of a door and leap to safety as the aircraft skidded over a ring road, snagging at least three cars in its undercarriage and then bursting into flames. At least 10 people on the road were badly hurt.
The pilot, Gustavo Weigel, who is recovering at a trauma unit, has not yet been able to give any details on the crash. Bystanders said he attempted to lift the nose of the aircraft as power was waning and when it skimmed over the barrier fence toward the busy ring road, he tried to find a gap in eight lanes of traffic. The aircraft eventually juddered to a halt at a construction site beside a golf complex.
"I felt the turbines gain speed. They lifted half a metre, but then silence," one of the passengers, Fabian Alejandro Nunez, told reporters. The aircraft soon became an inferno. "Most people were on fire. Only one door opened," Mr Nunez said. He had been sitting at the back of the aircraft.
A witness, who pulled five people out before flames engulfed everything, said: "People were screaming for help."
The stench of charred flesh and aviation fuel was overwhelming at the crash site, near Jorge Newbery metropolitan airport, 4 km from the centre of the Argentine capital, and next to the River Plate.
Golfers from a driving range under the flight path hurried over to help, and one reported hearing a man and woman shout "We are safe, we are safe" after jumping clear of the wreckage. Police and firemen were still sifting through smouldering debris last night, and the area remained closed to the public.
The black box was located intact, but reports that the crash was caused by a turbine explosion have yet to be confirmed officially. Engineers reportedly tinkered with the turbines earlier in the day, after problems were reported.
The plane had 64,000 hours of flight time, considerably more than the 50,000 hours recommended by the manufacturers, and had been flying since April 1970. Boeing officials have offered their full cooperation to Argentine investigators. They said hundreds of identical aircraft of a similar vintage were still in operation.
Before being bought by Lapa (Lineas Aereas Privadas Argentinas), the aircraft had been owned by both British Airways and a French airline.
Argentine pilots have long criticised the safety of Jorge Newbery airport. "It is incredibly dangerous," said Juan Jose Guiraldes, the former head of Buenos Aires' main international airport at Ezeiza. "There is a take- off or landing once a minute, making it even riskier. On top of that they don't have proper instruments for landings in bad weather conditions."