Up to 200 feared dead in Brazil plane crash

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Up to 200 people are feared to have died after a passenger plane crashed and burst into flames today after landing at Brazil’s busiest airport.

The plane carrying 170 passengers and eight crew came down in driving rain in Sao Paulo on a runway criticized as being too short, airport officials said.

The Airbus-320 owned by Brazil’s Tam airline skidded off the runway after touching down. The plane then travelled across a busy road at the height of the evening rush hour in South America’s largest city and slammed into a petrol station.

A fireball errupted several storeys high on impact and over 20 people are thought to have been killed on the ground.

The Brazillian fire department estimated that 200 people had lost their lives.

Tam worker Elias Rodrigues Jesus, walking near the site just as the crash happened, said the jet exploded in between the petrol station and a warehouse owned by Tam.

“All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook,” Jesus said.

“I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulphur.”

Jose Leonardi Mota, a spokesman with airport authority Infraero, said the Tam Linhas Aereas flight 3054 was en route to Sao Paulo from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre with up to 170 passengers on board.

“At this moment, we cannot determine the extent of possible injuries suffered by the airplanes occupants and crew members,” Tam said in a statement.

The accident happened during heavy rains, and critics have warned for years that such an accident was possible at the airport because its runway is too short for large planes landing when the runway is wet.

A federal court in February briefly banned takeoffs and landings of large jets at the airport because of safety concerns at Congonhas airport, which handles huge volumes of flights for the massive domestic Brazilian air travel market.

But an appeals court overruled the ban on three types of planes, saying it was too harsh because it would have severe economic ramifications and that there were not enough safety concerns to prevent the planes from landing and taking off the airport.

The crash came 10 months after Brazil’s deadliest crash, a September collision between a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 and an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest.

All 154 people on the passenger jet died. The executive jet landed safely.

The September crash highlighted Brazil’s increasing aviation woes, as a surge in travellers overwhelms underfunded air traffic control systems.

A Brazilian judge indicted four flight controllers and the smaller jet’s two US pilots on the equivalent of manslaughter charges, but the defendants point to other problems - from holes in radar coverage to the inability of some Brazilian controllers to clearly speak English, the language of international aviation.

Controllers - concerned about being made scapegoats - have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing or exacerbating lengthy delays and cancellations. Angry travellers have stormed airline check-in counters and runways in Brazil, and fistfights have broken out in waiting areas.


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