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.
Up to 16 passengers survived the crash, including an 18-month-old shielded by his mother's arms.
The Mandala Airlines (search) 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 searched Tuesday amid the wreckage, finding body parts and bits of flesh as they worked, while forensic experts struggled to identify the remains of the 147 victims.
It was 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 (search) 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, told The Associated Press 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."
The plane was carrying 116 passengers and crew, airline officials said. 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, but Transportation Minister Hatta Rajasa said there were 10.
Rajasa was quoted by the private Detik.com news Web site as saying 47 people on the ground were among the dead. City hospitals were treating at least a dozen residents.
One passenger, Rohadi Sitepu, said all the survivors were seated at the back of the plane.
"It was very, very scary. Unimaginable," he told Metro TV station from his hospital bed. "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 policemen, 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 and shouting 'Help! Help!"'
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.
Dozens of relatives and friends of victims wept at the airport in Jakarta upon hearing the news.
"I am waiting for my mother, but Mandala just said that the plane crashed and she was on board," said Aryati, in tears. "Her name has appeared on a list of victims on TV."
Rajasa appealed for families to come to the morgue to try and identify their relatives, saying forensic experts were having trouble doing so because most were badly burnt.
"The families know what to look for," he told el-Shinta radio.
Rajasa said investigators would be looking at why the plane failed to take off properly. The plane's flight data recorder, or black box, has been found, officials said.
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 Rajasa told reporters at the crash site he hoped that would happen soon.
Mandala Airlines is a Jakarta-based domestic carrier founded in 1969 by a military-run foundation. In recent years, the financially troubled airline has been forced to cut services and fares to remain competitive.
The plane was nearly 25 years old and received its last comprehensive service in June, the airline said. It was slated for retirement in 2016.
Indonesia's last jetliner crash was in February 2005. Twenty-six people were killed when a plane operated by low-cost Lion Air (search) skidded off the runway on Java Island. The country's worst crash was in September 1997; a Garuda Airbus (search) smashed into mountains near Medan, killing all 232 people on board.