Delays hampered crash rescue efforts

Balkan air tragedy: Storms complicate efforts to piece together final moments of flight which cost top Clinton aide his life
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The Independent Online
An investigation began yesterday into the last moments of the US military plane, carrying an American cabinet minister and senior businessmen on a Balkan trade trip, that crashed into a mountain only three kilometres north of Dubrovnik airport, killing all on board. One woman survived the six hours it took medical teams to reach the site, but died later.

Elite Croatian and US units have located 33 bodies - including that of Ron Brown, the US commerce secretary - but there is a dispute over passenger numbers. There were two flight manifests: one listed 33 names, the other 35.

To add to the confusion, two of the bodies recovered are named only on the longer list, and while the Croatian prime minister, Zlatko Matesa, said the search and rescue mission was now over, US officials - who fear two bodies are missing - said it would continue.

A team of US aviation officials arrived yesterday to determine why the US military 737 flew off course and hit a steep barren ridge line around 500 metres above sea level. Weather was cited as a possible factor - locals described it as the worst storm in a decade - but that does not explain the plane's course along an inland valley, parallel to the coastline, which the pilot should have followed. Nor is it clear why searchers could not pinpoint the spot at which the plane disappeared from radar screens.

In sombre mood, Peter Galbraith, the US ambassador to Croatia, said yesterday: "The plane was not where it should have been."

The last communication with air traffic control at Dubrovnik, Mr Brown's destination, came at around 3pm, when the pilot reported flying over the island of Kolocep, north of the Adriatic city. "That's a normal procedure," said Mr Matesa.

Shortly after, the plane disappeared from radar screens both in Dubrovnik and aboard military surveillance planes in the area. "They [the tower] just informed me that they lost him," said Mr Matesa. He added that searchers had found the cockpit voice recorder, located in the tail section.

The hostile terrain and the atrocious weather - thick fog and torrential downpours - hampered the rescue operation, but questions were also raised about delays in identifying and reaching the crash site. Initial aerial searches focused on the coastline, but a villager who saw the plane flying low and heard the crash walked to a neighbouring hamlet, telephoned the airport and alerted police.

Croatian troops reached the site - up a long, twisting dirt track, followed by a 500-metre hike over boulders - at around 7.30pm. But it seems that the first American forces did not arrive until midnight. A Croatian doctor alerted at 7.30pm reached the mountainside at 9pm and scrambled up the site wearing her white coat and medical clogs. But she was too late to save the one survivor, an American woman, who died on her way to hospital.

Since helicopters were unable to land, US special services despatched from Brindisi, who included a surgeon, abseiled down on ropes to the crash scene. One team member, Major Lewis Boone, described the crash site as he saw it after dawn.

"The first impression was the absolutely inaccessible terrain," he said. "As you got to where the site was it was literally hand over foot-type climbing over boulders."

He saw debris, then one engine; the tail section sheared off at the rear door, perched upright on the slope; and a piece of wing. And some of the victims.

"The remains of the people I saw were in and around the area by the tail section," he said. "It was very upsetting."

Personal effects such as suitcases were strewn around the area. Other sources said some bodies were found still strapped in their seats.

Journalists were barred from the scene by Croatian troops, but from the main road we could see the night punctuated by frantic activity, police lights flashing red and blue on the mountainside, the rumble of Hercules transport planes at the airport and the flicker of helicopter lights circling overhead.

Conditions were so bad that teams of searchers were rotated over 45 minutes or so, Major Boone said. A procession of army trucks brought down groups of bedraggled soldiers wrapped in blankets. "The area was incredibly hard to get to and there wasn't much left of the plane," the major added. "That was pretty shocking."

Ron Brown obituary, page 18