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Plane slams neighborhood

At least 147 people, many on the ground, die when an Indonesian jetliner crashes seconds after takeoff from an airport in north Sumatra.

Associated Press
Published September 6, 2005

MEDAN, Indonesia - Seconds after takeoff, an Indonesian airliner shook violently, veered to the left and slammed into a bustling neighborhood Monday, bursting into flames and killing at least 147 people - many on the ground.

As many as 16 passengers survived the crash, including an 18-month-old shielded by his mother's arms.

The Mandala Airlines plane went down 500 yards from the Medan airport in north Sumatra, shoving aside cars and motorcycles before plowing into a row of houses. Witnesses said some people were on fire as they fled the shattered wreckage.

Investigators were trying to determine what caused the crash, Indonesia's second air disaster in seven months and the sixth worldwide since Aug. 1. Authorities considered foul play unlikely, but were examining the possibility of human error or technical failure, said airline managing director Asril Tanjung.

Thousands of people, some standing on rooftops and buses, watched as firefighters struggled in a light drizzle to put out a fire that sent up thick clouds of black smoke. Several houses and dozens of cars and motorcycles were engulfed in flames.

Survivors said the Jakarta-bound Boeing 737-200 started shaking when it reached an altitude of about 100 yards before tilting sharply and smashing to the ground at 9:40 a.m. Some described a loud bang while the plane was still in flight, followed by a ball of fire.

"It happened very fast, no one even had time to panic," Rohadi Kamsah Sitepu, 35, said from his hospital bed. "There was an explosion outside the plane followed by huge flames inside the cabin. Then we crashed.

"I struggled to take off my seat belt and then ran through a hole in the fuselage, jumping over charred bodies scattered all over the road," said Sitepu, who had minor bruises to his legs. "It's a miracle I survived. I can't believe it."

The plane was carrying 116 passengers and crew. Sixteen survived, including the infant and his mother, said Nining, a Mandala spokeswoman, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. Medan police chief Col. Irawan Dahlan said there were 15 survivors from aboard the plane, while Transportation Minister Hatta Rajasa said there were 10.

Rajasa was quoted by the private news Web site as saying 47 people on the ground were among the dead. City hospitals were treating at least a dozen residents.

Sitepu said all the survivors were seated at the back of the plane.

"It was very, very scary. Unimaginable," he told Metro TV station. "The plane was taking off, but suddenly there was a strong tremor and it jerked to the left and crashed. There was fire everywhere, from the front of the plane to the back."

Hundreds of police, paramedics and residents evacuated victims, but Syahrial Anas, a doctor overseeing the removal of charred bodies, said flames and the thousands of onlookers at the crash site hampered their efforts.

"I saw at least 20 people running around with their clothes on fire," said Awi, a shop owner. "They were shrieking in agony."

Monday's crash follows five major airline accidents in August, the deadliest month for plane disasters since May 2002. Some 334 people died in accidents in Peru, Venezuela, Greece and Tunisia last month. A plane overshot a runway in Toronto and caught fire; no one died.

Medan, the country's third-largest city, has been a major staging point for tsunami relief operations in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island.

The international airport is near the center of town and surrounded by densely populated areas. Residents have for years argued that it should be moved, and Transportation Minister Rajasa told reporters at the crash site he hoped that would happen soon. Contract bidding for construction of a new airport will open this year.

Mandala Airlines is a Jakarta-based domestic carrier started in 1969 by a military-run foundation. Its 15-plane fleet consists mainly of 1970s-vintage Boeing 737-200 jets.

Congo crash kills 7

KINSHASA, Congo - A Russian-made airplane crashed Monday in the forest in eastern Congo, killing seven, including three Russian crew members, a U.N. official said.

The Antonov-26 aircraft crashed near the town of Isiro, a few hundred miles northeast of Kisangani, shortly before landing.

U.N. spokesman Kemal Saiki said four crew members, including three Russians and one Congolese, as well as three Congolese civilians, died.

[Last modified September 6, 2005, 03:15:21]

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