World

11-year-old girl in coma most seriously injured survivor of plane crash on Colombian island

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — An 11-year-old girl was in critical condition with a brain hemorrhage Tuesday, the worst injured survivor as investigators sought clues to why a jet carrying 131 people crashed while landing in a thunderstorm.

Only one of those aboard died, while at least 20 people remained hospitalized from the accident early Monday on the Colombian resort island of San Andres.

Survivors said everything seemed normal as the plane roared in toward the airport while lightning flashed outside the windows. Suddenly the jet slammed into the ground, the fuselage shattering and sliding onto the runway. Many called it a miracle they emerged unscathed.

"We have to give thanks to God," said Hernando Hernandez, a 49-year-old accountant who survived along with wife and 11-month-old daughter. "It's another opportunity at life."

Authorities said at least 13 survivors, including four with serious injuries, were flown to Bogota for treatment.

The critically injured Colombian girl, Maria Camila Angarita, suffered a broken pelvis and a brain injury, and was in an induced coma at a Bogota hospital, said Luis Guillermo Cantor, the hospital's manager.

Dozens of other passengers were treated for minor cuts, bruises and other injuries and released from hospitals and clinics on San Andres.

President Juan Manuel Santos said he would fly to the Caribbean island Wednesday to thank firefighters, police and others who helped passengers out of the wreckage.

"It's a miracle, as many people have called it," Santos said in a statement. "But a miracle that also was not only a work of God, but also of the help of many people who contributed so that this wouldn't be a tragedy."

Authorities say the crash happened so quickly the pilot didn't report an emergency to the control tower.

"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."

It may take experts months to figure out what happened in the moment when the Aires airline Boeing 737 hit the ground short of the runway — and how nearly everyone on board survived.

Investigators have been interviewing the crew and will examine the flight data and cockpit voice recorders to piece together the jetliner's final moments. Both recorders 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, as well as accounts of lightning as the plane was coming in for landing.

Cathy Kessinger, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said an experimental program she and others are developing located a fast-developing and powerful thunderstorm about 3 miles (5 kilometers) east of the airport and moving west just minutes before the crash.

When it neared the airport, "it looks like the storm reached a top of about 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), which is a good-sized storm," she said

She said the Oceanic Convection Diagnosis and Nowcasting system, which uses satellite readings to produce an image every half hour, "can't say exactly where it was at the crash time, but it was very close."

Hernandez, the passenger, said he was gazing at the lights of San Andres as the plane made what seemed a normal approach.

"But a gust of wind moved the plane a little and ... I imagine the pilot gave the engines more power and once again put it into position, and we continued going down toward the runway," Hernandez told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

"It seemed to me that the plane's back tires touched down," he said. "All of a sudden, there is a loud noise and the plane breaks apart."

The one fatality was Amar Fernandez de Barreto, 68, and doctors said she may have died from a heart attack rather than physical injuries.

Four U.S. citizens were among the injured, the U.S. Embassy said. They included a vacationing couple from suburban Atlanta, Carolina and David Bellino, who were awaiting transfer on Tuesday from an island hospital to a more advanced facility in Bogota.

They told NBC's "Today Show" they heard a loud noise and then lost consciousness. When David Bellino came to, he opened the emergency exit, climbed onto the wing and pulled his wife through.

"I walked about 15 feet as fast as I could and my legs gave out," he said. "My wife said, 'No, we got to go. It's going to blow up.'"

Carolina Bellino, who is seven weeks pregnant, said doctors told her that her baby would be fine. David Bellino had cracked vertebrae and couldn't move his legs, but said doctors told him the paralysis would likely be temporary.

There were four Brazilians on board, as well as two Germans — identified as Lukas Rehm and Kirsten Epler — both of whom the airline said were hospitalized in Bogota. The airline said two French citizens also were among the passengers.

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Associated Press writers George Tibbits in Seattle and Cesar Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.