SAO PAULO, Brazil – The pilot of an airliner that burst into flames after trying to land on a short, rain-slicked runway apparently tried to take off again, barely clearing rush-hour traffic on a major highway. The death toll rose Wednesday to 189 and could climb higher.
The TAM airlines Airbus-320 flight that originated in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil on Tuesday cleared the airport fence at the end of the runway and the busy highway but slammed into a gas station and a TAM building, causing an inferno.
The 6,362-foot runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport has been repeatedly criticized as dangerously short. Two planes slipped off it in rainy weather just a day earlier. Pilots call it the "aircraft carrier" — it's so short and surrounded by heavily populated neighborhoods that they're told to take off again and fly around if they overshoot the first 1,000 feet of runway.
By contrast, New York's LaGuardia Airport has a 7,003-foot runway that accommodates similar planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
"What appears to have happened is that he (the pilot) didn't manage to land and he tried to take off again," said Capt. Marcos, a fire department spokesman who would only identify himself by rank and first name in accordance with department guidelines.
Temperatures reached 1,830 degrees inside the plane, and officials said there was no way passengers could have survived.
"All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook," said Elias Rodrigues Jesus, a TAM worker who was walking nearby when he saw the crash. "I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur."
TAM Linhas Aereas SA said 186 were on the Airbus-320 — 162 passengers, 18 TAM employees and a crew of six — and officials said three bodies of people killed on the ground had been recovered. There were fears of more dead on the ground, with 14 others taken to hospitals, where their conditions were not known.
Ninety badly charred bodies, along with the flight data recorder, had been pulled from the wreckage by midmorning, firefighters said.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning for Brazil's second major air disaster in less than a year. In September, a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 and an executive jet collided over the Amazon rain forest, killing 154 people. Wednesday's crash now replaces that tragedy as Brazil's worst air disaster.
Silva's government is under increasing pressure to deal with Brazil's aviation woes. In September, a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest, causing the passenger jet to crash, killing 154 people.
Since then, congressional investigations have raised questions about the country's underfunded air traffic control systems, deficient radar system and the airlines' ability to cope with a surge in travelers. Controllers — concerned about being made scapegoats — have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing lengthy delays and cancelations.
Presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach said it was premature to declare a cause, but critics have warned for years of the danger of such an accident when large planes land in rainy weather at Congonhas airport, Brazil's busiest.
In 1996, a TAM airlines Fokker-100 crashed shortly after taking off from the same airport, killing all 96 people on board and three on the ground. In February, a federal court briefly banned takeoffs and landings of three types of large jets because of safety concerns. An appeals court overruled that, saying the safety concerns weren't sufficient to outweigh the severe economic ramifications for Brazil.
A320s were not covered under the judge's ban, and the TAM jet that crashed was a relatively recent model, said William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.
"So there are no red flags coming up, it sounds like a straightforward runway overrun," Voss said.
The single-aisle, twin-engine plane, delivered in 1998, had logged about 20,000 flight hours in some 9,300 flights, Airbus said.
Still, rainy conditions were a particular concern at the airport. Globo News television played tapes of conversations between flight controllers and pilots complaining about slick conditions on the runway days before the latest accident.
Tuesday's TAM flight was landing on Congonhas' main 6,362 feet-long runway, which was recently resurfaced but not grooved to provide better braking in rainy conditions. There were plans to regroove the surface by the end of July.
In France, Airbus said it was sending five specialists to Brazil to help investigate and would provide "full technical assistance" to France's bureau for accident investigations and to Brazilian authorities.
Emergency workers searching for bodies used a crane to maintain the structure of the destroyed TAM building.
The airline released a list of most of the people on the flight early Wednesday morning, but did not specify their nationalities. Opposition congressman Julio Redecker was among those on the flight.
"TAM expresses its most profound condolences to the relatives and friends of the passengers who were on Flight 3054," the company said.
Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Sao Paulo in May, also sent his condolences.
The airline flew 67 relatives of the victims from Porto Alegre to Sao Paulo Wednesday after they passed the night in a closed room. They arrived teary-eyed and unwilling to talk to the media.
But one man who spoke with the Associated Press earlier, Lamir Buzzanelli, said his 41-year-old son, Claudemir, an engineer, had called him from a business trip to Porto Alegre to say he was in the plane. "I've been calling him on his cell phone, and all I get is his voice mail," Buzzanelli said, his eyes tearing up.
Despite the crash, authorities reopened the airport Wednesday, using an auxiliary runway.