Philippines' worst air crash kills all 131 on board

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The Independent Online

Horrific scenes greeted rescuers in the hills of Samal island, southern Philippines, yesterday, where Air Philippines flight 541 ploughed into a coconut grove. All 131 passengers and crew were killed in the country's worst aviation disaster.

Charred body parts were strewn around the crash site. All that was left of some victims was their shoes.

The Boeing 737-200, en route from Manila and packed with Easter holiday-makers, crashed and burst into flames while attempting to land at Davao airport, three miles away.

It was full to capacity with people leaving the capital for the long Easter break, which begins today. Everyone on board - 124 passengers, including four infants, and seven crew - was killed. Rescue workers covered bodies with palm leaves; a Catholic priest sprinkled holy water on them and pronounced the last rites.

Smoke from the burning wreckage could be seen from the centre of Davao, the country's second largest city, 620 miles south-east of Manila.

The cause of the accident was not clear yesterday. The pilot had aborted one attempt to land because another aircraft was on the runway. He then circled in preparation for a second approach from the opposite direction before crashing on Samal, a popular holiday destination known for its beaches and diving resorts.

The plane disintegrated on impact, with only its tail section left intact. Jacinto Ortega, head of the Air Transportation Office, said that it had sheared trees on top of a 500ft hill on its descent.

"That's not the normal height of the flight path," he said. "It's 2,000ft in that particular area." There was low cloud over the runway at the time of the crash. Some eye-witnesses said they saw smoke pluming out of the plane while it was still in the air.

Air traffic controllers described visibility as intermittent. The airport is not fully equipped for instrument landings and landings had been suspended a few minutes before the crash.

An Air Philippines spokesman said the pilot reported engine problems shortly before the plane disappeared off radar screens. "There was a problem in one of the engines. There was no more communication after that," he said.

However, the Philippines under-secretary for transportation, Willy Evangelista, speculated that the crash was caused by pilot error, a result of the low clouds.

The 22-year-old plane was given a routine maintenance check before it took off from Manila at 5.21am on an early-morning flight.Air Philippines, which began operations in 1996, is one of a number of new national airlines created after deregulation of the industry. Several use old aircraft. However, Air Philippines had not had any previous crashes.

Boeing said yesterday that it was not unusual for a 22-year-old aircraft to be still in operation. The plane "can be operated essentially indefinitely", a spokesman said.

By nightfall yesterday 50 bodies had been recovered and the cockpit voice recorder had been found.