130 Survive After Boeing 737 Crashes on Landing in Colombia

A Boeing 737 carrying 131 people crashed in a thunderstorm and broke into three pieces as it slid onto the runway on a Colombian island on Monday. The region’s governor said it was a miracle that only one person died.

In this photo released by Colombia's National Police, a police officer stands by a plane after it crash on the runaway of the airport on San Andres island in Colombia, Monday Aug. 16, 2010. Photo: AP/Colombia's National Police

Survivors say everything seemed normal as a Boeing 737 jetliner with 131 people on board prepared to land in a storm on a Caribbean island Monday. Suddenly it plunged to earth, killing one person (apparently from a heart attack) — a death toll so low that the island’s governor called it a miracle.

The plane hit short of the runway on Colombia’s San Andres Island and skidded on its belly as the fuselage fractured and bits of landing gear and at least one engine were ripped off. The jet wound up on one end of the runway, crumpled and in pieces, as passengers scrambled or were helped to safety.

Officials were investigating reports the Aires airline jet was hit by lightning before the crash on the resort island, Colombian air force Col. David Barrero said. He said other possible causes were being investigated as well.

Of the 125 passengers and six crew members aboard Aires Flight 8520, the only one killed was a 68-year-old woman, Amar Fernandez de Barreto, San Andres Gov. Pedro Gallardo said. “It was a miracle and we have to give thanks to God,” Gallardo said.

Officials said 119 people were treated or checked at clinics and five of them were seriously injured. The airline said at least five U.S. citizens were on the plane, and the U.S. Embassy in Colombia confirmed at least four Americans suffered injuries and were receiving care. There were also two Germans and four Brazilians. The rest were Colombian.

A police officer stands by a crashed plane sitting on the runaway at the airport on San Andres island in Colombia, Monday Aug. 16, 2010. The plane broke into three pieces on landing - but all save one on board survived. Photo: AP/Colombia's National Police

The accident occurred so suddenly that the pilot did not report an emergency to the control tower, said Col. Donald Tascon, deputy director of the civil aeronautics agency. He said the plane’s low altitude as it prepared to land – perhaps 100 feet (30 meters) just before the crash – may have averted worse damage.

Passenger Ricardo Ramirez, a vacationing civil engineer, told Caracol Radio that all had seemed normal, even though the plane was flying through a storm, with flashes of lightning, as it neared the airport. “The plane was coming in perfectly. We were just about to land, everything was under control,” he said. The accident “appeared out of nowhere.”

After the plane hit and skidded to a stop on the pavement, Ramirez said he struggled to free himself and his wife from their seat belts. “We tried to get out of the plane because the plane was starting to shoot flames,” he said. “In a few minutes, a police patrol arrived and helped us.”

Survival was “a miracle of God. Thanks to God we are alive,” Ramirez said, though his wife suffered a dislocated shoulder.

Firefighters quickly doused the beginnings of a fire on a wing, police Gen. Orlando Paez said. He a group of police officers who were waiting at the airport for the plane to fly them back to the mainland aided in rescuing victims.

Barrero, commander of the Colombian air force’s Caribbean Air Group, said by telephone from San Andres that “the skill of the pilot kept the plane from colliding with the airport.”

He said the cause of the accident was uncertain. “You can’t speculate. Lightning? A gust of wind? The investigation will say,” Barrero said. The jet crashed at 1:49 a.m. on the island, a resort area of 78,000 people about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of the Nicaraguan coast.

A plane that crashed lays in pieces along the runaway at the airport on San Andres island in Colombia, Monday Aug. 16, 2010. The Boeing 737 operated by the airline Aires crashed on landing after departing from Bogota around midnight local time with 131 passengers. Photo: AP/Colombia's National Police

Ninety-nine passengers were taken to Amor de Patria Hospital on San Andres, said Dr. Robert Sanchez, the hospital director. “It’s incredible. For the dimension (of the accident), there should be more,” he said.

Sanchez said an initial examination indicated that the single fatality may have been caused by a heart attack. Twenty other passengers were treated at another clinic, according to the national civil aviation agency.

Among the seriously injured was a 12-year-old girl who suffered a broken pelvis, Gallardo said. A 1- 1/2-year-old boy among the passengers wasn’t listed among those with serious injuries.

Dr. Ricardo Villarreal, director of the clinic of the same name, said the pilot suffered some cuts to his face and was under observation. He identified him as Wilson Gutierrez.

The airline, Aerovias de Integracion Regional SA, said it has about 20 planes, including 10 Boeing 737-700 jets. It said in a Twitter posting that it was “working and investigating with the aeronautical authorities to determine the causes.”

Barrero said scattered pieces of the plane blocked part of the 7,800-foot (2,380-meter) runway. But enough was usable that air ambulances would be able to land, he said.

Donald Tascon, deputy director of Colombia’s aeronautics authority, said: “The captain of the airliner told us it was struck by lightning. We are inspecting the remains of the plane to try to establish what caused the accident.”

Commercial jets are reckoned to take an average of one lightning hit year, but their outer skin is made of aluminium or other conductive materials. Lightning will usually pass harmlessly through the outside of the aircraft. Computer systems on board are also protected from surges caused by lightning.

Investigators say this crash may have happened because the strike came as the plane was landing. In June 2000, a passenger plane was hit by lightning as it tried to land at Wanjiatun airport in Shitai, China, causing it to explode and crash. All 51 on board died. [via Daily Mail (UK), CBS News and NPR]

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