Human error is blamed for Milan airport collision

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The Independent Online

When Italian businessmen, Danish families and European holiday-makers boarded their flight to Copenhagen in Milan, they thought they were over the worst. They'd faced down the fear of flying induced by the war against terrorism, battled thick fog and traffic on their way to Linate airport and interminable security checks once inside.

Then just as flight SK686 was bracing for take-off shortly after 8am, the unthinkable happened. Not a bomb, nor a missile nor a hijacking, but a banal collision with another plane, caused by human error.

Some 114 people are confirmed dead in what is the worst tragedy in the history of Scandinavian Airlines Systems (SAS) and the highest death toll in recent Italian aviation history. So far, only 70 charred corpses have been recovered and experts said identification of the victims will be difficult.

In the moments following the crash, the terrorist hypothesis sent news agencies into a frenzy as stunned relatives heard the noise or were paged in the airport. A special information and counselling room was set up in an executive lounge as Linate cancelled all flights and waiting passengers were transferred to nearby Malpensa.

However, initial reports of a terrorist action were quickly dismissed as the dynamic of the tragedy became clear.

As he was taxiing for take-off, already at a speed of 250-300kph (155-185mph), the SAS pilot saw a small Cessna enter directly into his path from a secondary runway. He appeared to try to swerve to avoid a collision but it was too late. On impact with the private plane, the Scandinavian aircraft veered left, directly into a hangar used for baggage handling. The aircraft broke into two pieces. Within seconds a fire had broken out, sweeping through the mangled hangar, whose roof collapsed, and back down through the plane itself.

One airport employee said: "I just heard these huge noises that sounded like an explosion. We all rushed out and saw it was a plane that was just splintered into pieces. It was a charred shell within minutes."

Another worker said: "Everything was burning with immense flames, 100 feet high. Inside the hangar there was panic as everyone thought it was a bomb."

Some of those working in the baggage centre managed to escape. Several are being treated for burns in nearby hospitals but six are still unaccounted for. The Transport Minister, Pietro Lunardi, confirmed that 114 people were dead: 104 passengers (56 Italians and 48 foreigners) and six crew on board the SAS plane, and two German pilots and two Italian passengers in the Cessna Citation jet. The Italian President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and the Pope sent messages of condolence and there will be five minutes' silence for the victims today.

Mr Lunardi said the cause was "human error", adding that the accident occurred when both planes were still on the ground. Officials at the airport say the heavy fog that enveloped Linate was also a contributing factor.

However, air traffic controllers and pilots said the radar systems were out of action pending the introduction of a more sophisticated system. The new system had apparently been in place for more than a year but was not operational because necessary technical controls had not been carried out.