PUCALLPA, Peru – Trudging through knee-deep mud in a hail storm, at least 58 people managed to escape a flaming Peruvian airliner that splintered as it crash-landed in the Amazon jungle, killing 37. One aviation expert called it a "miracle" that so many walked away.
TANS airline (search) said wind shear Tuesday afternoon may have forced the pilot's emergency landing attempt, making TANS Peru Flight 204 the world's fifth major airline accident this month and August the deadliest month for airline disasters in three years.
The Boeing 737-200 (search) was carrying 98 people, including six crew members, on a domestic flight from the Peruvian capital of Lima to the Amazon city of Pucallpa (search), company spokesman Jorge Belevan said Wednesday. The plane's pilot was among the dead.
Belevan said three missing people might include survivors from Pucallpa who returned to their homes after the crash without receiving medical assistance.
Television images of the crash site showed mutilated bodies being retrieved from a marsh near the Pucallpa airport where the pilot had attempted an emergency landing. The fuselage was shattered and pieces strewn along a 1,640-foot path made by the plane as it crash-landed.
"A plane is totally destroyed and more than 50 percent of the passengers have survived," John Elliot, an experienced Peruvian pilot and aviation expert, said in an interview with The Associated Press, calling it "a miracle."
Jose Leandro Vivas, 43, a Peruvian-American from the Brooklyn borough of New York, survived the crash along with his three daughters, his brother and his sister-in-law.
"We jumped out the plane and unfortunately we were thigh deep in the marsh water. It was just mud," Vivas said Wednesday. "We had to practically crawl out of there and try to get to some high ground."
In an interview with the AP in a restaurant alongside the Ucayali River where the family was celebrating its good fortune, his brother, Gabriel Vivas, said that he and another man saw a baby boy perhaps a year old behind the plane when they got out.
"He picked up the baby and we tried to get to higher ground. He got stuck in the mud and then I grabbed the baby. Then he jumped in front of me to push away the thorns that were in our way. Between us, we got the baby to higher ground with everybody else," he said.
Gabriel Vivas said he not did know if the baby's parents had survived the crash but was told the baby had been brought to Lima and was alive.
Yuri Salas, 38, also walked to safety after crawling from the wreckage.
"I felt a strong impact and a light and fire and felt I was in the middle of flames around the cabin, until I saw to my left a hole to escape through," he said.
He said he heard another person shouting to him to keep advancing because the plane was going to explode. "The fire was fierce despite the storm," he said. "Hail was falling and the mud came up to my knees."
The pilot began his approach to the airport in torrential rains and strong winds, which passengers said began rocking the plane 10 minutes before the scheduled landing Tuesday afternoon. Four miles from the airstrip, he attempted to make an emergency landing, TANS said, after wind shear apparently pushed his plane close to the ground.
The pilot apparently aimed for the marsh to soften the impact, but the aircraft broke apart in the landing, strewing pieces of fuselage as it skidded over the boggy ground.
Belevan credited the expertise of the pilots and insisted the plane did not crash. "The plane made an emergency landing and the accident occurred during the emergency landing," he said.
But Elliot and Victor Girao, a former president of Peru's Association of Pilots, said the crash appeared to be due to pilot error. Elliot said the pilot should have opted to avoid the storm and land at another airport.
Both said the pilot was flying too close to the ground while making the approach to the airport from four miles out, making it difficult to control the aircraft against wind shear.
"They were coming in very low, looking for the airstrip," Girao said.
Search teams have recovered the plane's cockpit flight data recorder, said Pablo Arevalo, a prosecutor in Pucallpa.
Belevan said there were 18 foreigners aboard the aircraft — 11 Americans, four Italians, one Colombian, one Australian and one from Spain.
Among the dead were at least four foreigners — an American man and woman, a Spanish woman and a Colombian woman, said Manuel Rodriguez Rojas, an identification expert for the National Elections Board sent to Pucallpa to help identify the dead. Police earlier listed an Italian man as dead but did not mention a Spanish woman.
He identified the Americans as Stephen Michael Lotti, 28, through his boarding pass, and Sherra Young Gay through a visa card found on her body. No home towns were available for either.
Many bodies could not immediately be identified.
Airline disasters this month have killed 331 people. The previous deadliest month was May 2002, with three major crashes that killed at least 485.
One common factor in several of the crashes was the weather, said Bill Waldock, an aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.
More plane crashes tend to happen in August, because thunderstorms — especially dangerous to planes — are more frequent.
"It's one of those odd little blips. Quite a few accidents have happened in August," he said, citing U.S. airline crashes in 1985, 1987 and 1988.
Last week, 160 people died when a Colombian-registered West Caribbean charter went down in Venezuela. Two days earlier, 121 people died when a Cyprus-registered Helios Airways Boeing plunged into the mountains north of Athens.
Sixteen people were believed to have died Aug. 6 when a plane operated by Tunisia's Tuninter crashed off Sicily. In Toronto, all 309 people survived aboard an Air France Airbus A340 that overshot the runway on Aug. 2.
In January 2003, a TANS twin engine Fokker 28 turbojet, plowed into a 11,550-foot high mountain in Peru's northern jungle, killing all 42 passengers and four crew members aboard.