Experts astounded anyone survived jetliner crash

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

"When I saw the pieces of aeroplane around me, it dawned on me we had had an accident," said Gonzalo Dussan. "But I didn't know what exactly had happened."

What Mr Dussan, a 37-year-old Colombian immigrant working in the United States, did not realise was that he had been lying on a freezing mountainside for at least eight hours after the crash of American Airlines flight 965.

Strapped to a stretcher with his face blackened by smoke, Mr Dussan told a television crew he recalled sitting with his family on the aircraft as it came in to land in his native country. "The next thing I remember I was getting up from the ground with a pain in my shoulder, then my head and hands hurt and I felt terribly cold.

"When I realised where I was, I walked to a clearing and called out to my daughter. She called back, `Daddy, daddy, I'm thirsty.' I heard the rotors of helicopters circling the area, and tried to get out of that place to signal them."

Mr Dussan and his daughter, Michelle, six, were last night recovering in hospital. They were among only four confirmed survivors from the 164 people aboard the Boeing 757, which hit a 9,200ft mountain as it prepared to land in the Colombian city of Cali on a flight from Miami. First reports that Mr Dussan's wife Nancy and their 13-year-old son Gonzalo Jnr had also survived were dampened by Red Cross officials yesterday, who said they had not been accounted for.

Aviation experts who initially assumed no one could have survived the disintegration of the jetliner were astounded. They were trying to find out where the survivors were sitting and how they were catapulted free. Colombian army and civil rescue helicopters did not reach the crash site until early yesterday, more than eight hours after the plane hit the mountain around 10pm on Wednesday night.

The other two known survivors were students, Mercedes Ramirez, 21, and Mauricio Reyes, 19, both returning to their native country for Christmas from US universities.

Among the victims was the pilot, 57-year-old Nicholas Tafuri, of Florida, who had been with American Airlines for 26 years, flown 10,000 hours, was a regular on Boeing 757s and knew the mountainous approach to Cali airport well. "He was always the guy standing at the door, talking to the little old ladies as they got on and off " a fellow pilot said yesterday.

Investigators who recovered the aircraft's "black box" yesterday were concentrating its flight path, 13 miles east of the normal one, taking it into the mountain. That added fuel to the theory that Marxist Colombian guerrillas may have destroyed homing beacons on the ground, something they have done in the past.

Relatives of victims also wanted to know why the flight had taken off two hours late from Miami - the airline said it had waited for late arrivals connecting from snow-bound New York - suggesting there may have been some problem or even bomb warning.

As rescuers sifted the jungle-covered San Jose mountain yesterday, the seventh anniversary of Lockerbie, they found bodies hanging from trees, sometimes still strapped to their seats. At least three local peasants were arrested for looting watches from bodies.