Survivors say everything seemed normal as a jetliner with 131 people on board prepared to land in a storm on a Caribbean resort. Suddenly it plunged to earth, killing one person — a death toll so low the island’s governor called it a miracle.
“The pilot informed us that we were going to land in San Andres, we buckled our seat belts, we settled in — and a second later, boom! A big bang,” said survivor Alvaro Granados, 25, who was flying with his wife and two children. “When my wife and I stood and looked behind us we saw that the back of the plane was missing.”
Authorities say it happened so quickly the pilot didn’t report an emergency to the control tower at Colombia’s San Andres Island.
Experts are trying to figure out why the Aires airline Boeing 737 jetliner hit the ground short of the runway on Monday — and how 130 of the people on board survived as the aircraft skidded on its belly with its fuselage fracturing and its landing gear and at least one engine ripping off.
After the jet ground to a stop, passengers scrambled from their seats or were helped to safety. Authorities said firefighters quickly doused flames that broke out on a wing.
The one fatality was Amar Fernandez de Barreto, 68, and doctors said she may have succumbed to a heart attack. Officials said 119 people in all were taken to hospitals or clinics, most of them for minor injuries.
Manuel Villamizar, director of the emergency operations center in Bogota, told reporters late Monday that he had arranged for six of the badly injured to be flown in from San Andres island, where the crash occurred. The health ministry said a total of 13 injured were being moved to Bogota.
Col. Donald Tascon, deputy director of Colombia’s civil aeronautics agency, speculated the plane’s low altitude as it approached for a landing — perhaps 100 feet just before the crash — may have avoided more severe damage and saved lives.
“It was a miracle and we have to give thanks to God,” said San Andres Gov. Pedro Gallardo.
Granado, the passenger, said there was little turbulence when the plane went down.
Ricardo Ramirez, a civil engineer who was flying with his wife, told Caracol Radio everything seemed fine despite the rain and lightning. “The plane was coming in perfectly. We were just about to land, everything was under control,” he said. The crash “appeared out of nowhere.” 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.” Ramirez said his wife suffered a dislocated knee. “Thanks to God we are alive,” he said.
Officials were investigating a range of possible causes and looking into reports that Aires Flight 8520 was hit by lightning before the crash, Colombian air force Col. David Barrero said.
“You can’t speculate. Lightning? A gust of wind? The investigation will say,” Barrero said by telephone from San Andres.
Aviation experts agreed it was too early to speculate.
“You don’t exclude any possibility, but investigators will be looking closely at the weather,” said William Voss, president and chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Alexandria, Va.
Voss said a “sudden shift in wind direction can cause the aircraft to suddenly lose a lot of lift and end up landing short of the runway.” Tascon, the civil aviation official, said San Andres’ airport is not equipped with sophisticated equipment such as Doppler radar, which is used in many U.S. airports to help detect wind shear.
Larry Cornman, a physicist who studies wind shear and turbulence at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said he doubted lightning alone would be enough to bring down an aircraft.
The airline said at least five U.S. citizens were on the plane, while the U.S. Embassy in Colombia said four Americans and one U.S. permanent resident suffered injuries. The embassy said one critically injured American needed to be flown to Bogota for further care, while the others were treated and released.
Airline representative Erika Zarante said four Brazilians, two Germans, two Costa Ricans and two French citizens also were on the jet, which crashed at 1:49 a.m. Monday on San Andres, an island with about 78,00 residents. It lies about 120 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast.
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.” Boeing said the wrecked 737-700 jet left the factory in 2003. It was not clear whether Aires was the first operator.