Pop star among 24 victims as Swiss plane crashes in wood

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The Independent Online

Investigators were examining the smouldering wreckage of a Crossair plane in woods near Zurich airport yesterday for clues to the crash.

Twenty-four people, including the American pop singer Melanie Thornton, died when the aircraft crashed three miles short of the runway before midnight on Saturday. It was second air crash near Zurich in as many years, and the latest in a succession of horrific incidents to befall Switzerland.

The bodies of 10 people were recovered. Remains of the other 14 were not found, but they are assumed to be dead, buried in the front section of the aircraft which had burrowed itself into the ground. The rear of the fuselage remained almost intact.

Nine people had survived the crash, raising initial hopes that they might still be alive, wandering in the woods. But after an intensive search involving 300 people from nearby villages, the search-and-rescue mission was abandoned as darkness fell. Among the passengers were three prominent Israelis and Thornton, who was on a promotional tour for her album.

Miriam Wettstein, one of the survivors, said: "It was like a nightmare. This only happens in films. I had no time to be scared. I was just very cold. I thought: 'I have to get out of here, the plane can explode'."

A villager later recalled the jet's last moments. Franz Brunner said: "It appeared to be flying low. Then the sky turned bright orange, as if there was a sudden ball of fire."

The four-engined plane, a Jumbolino Avro RJ-100 built by British Aerospace and operated by the Swiss company Crossair, had been flying from Berlin to Zurich. As it was about to land, it vanished from radar screens. Air traffic controllers said there had been no unusual radio message.

Investigators were examining the two black boxes to find out why the plane had taken a much steeper landing approach than prescribed. At the crash site, the aircraft should still have been 300 metres above the ground. Although weather conditions were poor and visibility was hampered by a snowstorm, the aircraft was equipped for instrumental landing. Two planes had landed without problems shortly before the crash.

Crossair said the captain was an experienced pilot who had worked for the company for nearly 20 years. The plane itself, only five years old, was serviced a week before the crash.

If pilot error and technical fault are ruled out, the investigation is expected to focus on the safety of the runway. It is a night-landing strip which was opened just a month ago to alleviate noise for people living under the flight path.

The approach to this runway is considered trickier than others, and air-traffic controllers had the option to close it down in bad weather. However, airport officials said the pilot did not request permission to switch to another runway.

When the Swiss President, Moritz Leuenberger, heard of the latest disaster, he said: "We are absolutely speechless after being dragged from one catastrophe to the next. Our grief is mixed with bitterness because it never seems to end."

In the past two months, Switzerland has had to cope with a massacre at the regional parliament in Zug, when an armed man went on the rampage killing 15 people, and a serious fire in the St Gotthard road tunnel which killed more than 10 people. In January 2000, a Crossair plane bound for Dresden crashed shortly after take-off from Zurich, killing all 10 people on board.