Air crash 'miracle' for Colombia as plane breaks up

The wreckage of the Boeing 737 at San Andres airport (16 August) Passengers had feared that the plane would burst into flames after the crash

Survivors have been telling how a Colombian airliner broke into three on landing yet all but one of the 131 people on board escaped death.

The Boeing 737 crashed as it came into land during a storm on the Caribbean island of San Andres.

In what officials called a miracle, the aircraft's engines shut down on impact and its fuselage did not catch fire.

A honeymooner spoke of seeing the plane split near his seat, then walking away from the wreck with his wife.

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"It was very surreal, like science fiction," Alejandro Murillo Pedrosa told BBC World Service.

Passengers were scattered over the end of the runway and at least 119 people were hurt, some seriously. The only death was that of a woman, believed to have been 68, who suffered a heart attack on her way to hospital.

Operated by the local airline, Aires, the plane had left the capital, Bogota, at around midnight (0500 GMT) on Monday and crashed at 0149 (0649 GMT).

At least 16 non-Colombian nationals are reported to have been on the plane, from countries including the US, Brazil, Costa Rica and France.

Barefoot on the runway

Mr Murillo Pedrosa said he and his wife are recovering in the hotel they had booked for their honeymoon on San Andres, a popular holiday destination.

His wife has a broken foot and bruising to her face and body, while he escaped with a broken collarbone and 15 stitches in his forehead.

San Andres map

The flight, he said, had been uneventful until the approach to the island, in heavy rain, when the pilot ordered the crew to prepare for landing.

"The back wheels of the plane touched down, but on this occasion it was much harder than usual - much, much louder," Mr Murillo Pedrosa said.

"I remember being thrown forward against the seat in front, hitting my head, and from then on the chaos started, the banging around - the plane split more or less where I was seated."

"I remember grabbing my wife and another person next to me and everyone was screaming and crying and shouting out that the plane was going to catch fire," he told the BBC.

"What I did was get out, walking as best I could, get us away as far as I could - 150, 200m - walking with my wife and another woman who was asking about her husband.

"I didn't know what to tell her because I felt like I wasn't really there, like it was a nightmare. I just walked, looked at my wife, I saw she didn't have some of her clothes - she was barefoot - but I saw she was OK, at least she could walk, limping."

Low altitude

Mr Murillo Pedrosa and his companions walked as far as a runway light, where they waited as ambulances and fire engines rushed to the scene.

An airport taxi driver then arrived and took them to hospital, where they were among the first survivors to arrive.

The authorities said the crash happened so quickly that the pilot did not even report an emergency to the control tower, according to the Associated Press.

Investigators are trying to understand how the plane, built in 2003, hit the ground short of the runway, skidding on its belly with its fuselage fracturing, and its landing gear and at least one engine being ripped off.

Flames which broke out on one of the wings were quickly extinguished.

Col Donald Tascon, deputy director of Colombia's civil aeronautics agency, suggested the plane's low altitude as it approached for landing - perhaps 30m (100ft) just before the crash - might have prevented more severe damage being done to the plane and saved lives.

"It's a miracle," Gen Orlando Paez of the national police said, commending the pilot's skill for keeping the plane on the runway.

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