130 survive 'miracle' plane crash in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia — Survivors say everything seemed normal as a jetliner with 131 people on board prepared to land in a storm on a Caribbean resort island. 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 25-year-old Alvaro Granados, 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.

But it may take experts months to figure out what happened in the seconds when 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 rather than physical injuries from the crash. Officials said 119 people in all were taken to hospitals or clinics, most of them for minor injuries.

At least 13 survivors, including four with serious injuries, were flown to Bogota for treatment, Colombian air force Col. David Barrero said Tuesday.

Investigators have been interviewing the crew and will be examining the flight data and cockpit voice recorders to piece together the final moments. Both were recovered from the wreckage and it will take three or four months to fully analyze them, said Col. Donald Tascon, deputy director of Colombia's civil aeronautics agency.

Authorities are considering whether a violent wind shift in the thunderstorm could have played a role in the crash, as well as accounts of lightning as the plane was coming in for landing.

Granados, the passenger, said there appeared to be little turbulence when the plane went down.

Based on how the plane ended up — in three large pieces on the runway — the plane most likely cracked apart on impact, Tascon said.

"If it had broken apart in flight, (the pieces) would have been more spread out and smaller," he said by telephone from Bogota, while a team of investigators worked on the Caribbean island.

He said the Boeing 737-700's maintenance log was up to date.

"You don't exclude any possibility, but investigators will be looking closely at the weather," said William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

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 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, Colorado, said he doubted lightning alone would be enough to bring down an aircraft.

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.

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. It crashed at 1:49 a.m. Monday on San Andres, a Colombian island with about 78,000 residents some 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Nicaragua.

Aires — whose full name is Aerovias de Integracion Regional SA — said it has about 20 planes, including 10 Boeing 737-700 jets.

Boeing said the wrecked 737-700 left the factory in 2003. It was not clear whether Aires was the first operator.

Associated Press writer George Tibbits in Seattle contributed to this report.