Rescue workers remove bodies from Cuba plane crash
GUASIMAL, Cuba (AP) – Rescue workers on Friday pulled bodies from the charred wreckage of a state airliner that went down in rugged central Cuba, as desperate relatives gathered at the capital’s airport and called foreign embassies seeking information on their loved ones.
All 68 people aboard AeroCaribbean Flight 883 were killed when the turboprop plane went down Thursday afternoon in a remote area near the village of Guasimal in Sancti Spiritus province.
Twenty-eight foreigners were among the dead, including nine Argentines, seven Mexicans, and citizens of Germany, Holland, Spain and Italy. One Japanese national was also on board and Australia’s government said in a statement that Cuban officials had confirmed that two Australian women were on the plane. It was Cuba’s worst air disaster in more than 20 years.
The plane, carrying 61 passengers and an all-Cuban crew of seven, was en route to the capital from the main eastern city of Santiago de Cuba when it reported an emergency at 5:42 p.m. and later crashed in flames.
Cuban state media showed footage of rescue workers and military personnel poring over the crash site in the evening hours while firefighters sprayed the smoldering wreckage. Bodies of the victims were being brought to the medical examiner’s office in Havana for identification, and a commission was formed to determine the cause of the crash.
“All of the bodies are burned, except for two that were in the back of the plane,” chief investigator Rolando Diaz Vergal told local state-run newspaper Escambray. “It seems that the passengers had no time to react because the burned bodies are still in their own seats, which has helped us with the identifications.”
Vergal said the crash site smelled of death and some body parts were thrown up into the branches of nearby vegetation.
State media reported that rescuers had found the plane’s flight data recorders, a key step in possibly determining the cause of the crash.
Javier Figueroa, an official at the Argentine Embassy in Havana, said the mission was inundated with calls from worried relatives in his country. President Cristina Fernandez was readying a plane to ferry family members of the victims to Cuba, but it was not clear when it would arrive.
“We have been in contact with the (Cuban) Foreign Ministry and Civil Aviation about the rescue efforts, which are being made more difficult because of the area’s rugged conditions,” Figueroa said. “That is making identifications more complicated.”
Figueroa said the Argentines on board appeared to be tourists – not residents – and they were not part of a single tour group.
Mexico’s foreign ministry said embassy personnel in Cuba were on their way to the crash site, and would work with Cuban officials to help identify victims. It said consular officials were helping relatives of the victims. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero sent a letter of condolence to Cuban leader Raul Castro, and promised his country’s help.
At Havana’s national terminal, relatives were isolated from travelers and journalists. One distraught man told The Associated Press he lost three cousins aboard the plane, but would not give his name and was quickly ushered away by airport officials.
In Toulouse, France, aircraft manufacturer ATR said the plane was built in 1995 and became part of AeroCaribbean’s fleet in October 2006. It had logged 25,000 hours of flying time during more than 34,500 flights.
“At this time, the reasons for the accident are still unknown,” the company said, adding that it was ready to “provide full technical assistance” to Cuban and French aviation officials.
“ATR expresses its deepest sympathy to the families, friends and loved ones affected by the accident,” the company said.
In Guasimal, about 220 miles (350 kilometers) east of Havana, emergency vehicles lined a road about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the crash site, and journalists were not permitted to get any closer.
Photos posted on the website of the local newspaper, Escambray, showed a large piece of the plane in flames, with rescue workers in olive-green military uniforms standing around it. Others showed rescue workers using a bulldozer to reach the remote site.
Another picture showed the AeroCaribbean plane in happier times, painted white, yellow and blue, and adorned with images of bending palm trees.
The twice-a-week AeroCaribbean flight goes from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Santiago de Cuba to Havana.
Cuban media was quick to release the passenger manifest, but details on the crash itself were hard to come by in a country whose press is tightly controlled.
A state television newscast hours after the crash led with news of an American ballet company’s visit to Cuba, then reported on a Transportation Ministry decree that said travelers would be reimbursed or rescheduled if their trips were interrupted by tropical weather in eastern Cuba.
The announcers made no mention of the crash until they read a short statement toward the end of the broadcast.
The flight would have been one of the last leaving Santiago de Cuba for Havana ahead of Hurricane Tomas, which had not yet reached Cuba when the plane went down.
AeroCaribbean is owned by Cuban state airline Cubana de Aviacion.
The crash is the deadliest in Cuba since a chartered Cubana de Aviacion plane en route from Havana to Milan, Italy, went down shortly after takeoff in September 1989, killing all 126 people on board, as well as 24 people on the ground.