SAO PAULO – Four people at the rear of a plane that crashed in a muddy Amazon river managed to open an emergency door and swim to safety as the aircraft sank, dragging 24 others to their death, officials said Sunday.
Most victims were members of a single family that had chartered the plane to travel to a birthday party. Seven children died.
"It was all very fast. The plane sank very fast," 21-year-old survivor Brenda Moraes told Brazil's GloboNews TV. "We only had a chance because we were sitting in the last rows and could open the emergency door."
Divers on Sunday recovered two dozen bodies from the twin turboprop plane that plunged into the Manacapuru river in a heavy rainstorm the day before, ending rescue operations after all passengers and crew were accounted for, said firefighter Maj. Jair Ruas Braga.
Aviation and fire officials said there were 28 people aboard the plane, a twin turboprop with a capacity of 21 people. Authorities said they are investigating the alleged overcrowding.
A director for the company operating the plane denied the plane was overweight despite carrying more passengers than its capacity.
Firefighters stood hip-deep in the river examining the plane, which they planned to remove from the river. It was largely submerged except for the tail and the emergency exit door.
The survivors, including a 9-year-old boy, swam clear of the sinking plane Saturday and were helped by local residents until rescuers arrived.
One relative, Roberto Buchdid, said his wife called and told him to alert authorities.
"She was very scared," Buchdid said.
The four survivors had only minor injuries and were in good condition Sunday, said Marcelo Alves Cabral, director of the hospital where they were treated. He told Globo's G1 Web site that the worst injury was a deep cut on the back of a 23-year-old man.
"They told me that when they heard one of the engines stop, the plane lost altitude and hit something before going nose-first into the water," Cabral said.
Survivors' relatives told Brazilian media that an engine apparently stopped about an hour into the 185-mile (300-kilometer) flight, which originated in the city of Coari. The plane went down about 50 miles (80 kilometers) short of its destination in Manaus, capital of Amazonas state.
Nearly 20 of the people on board were family members, plus friends and two pilots, said Fernando Bezerra, a director of the company operating the plane.
The Coari city health secretary also was among the dead.
The pilot had contacted air controllers to report driving rain, but did not mention engine trouble, the air force said. It noted that the pilot appears to have attempted a rare water landing, such as one made by a commercial jet last month in New York's Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 people on board.
Brazilian media, citing witnesses and local authorities, said the pilot may have been trying to make an unscheduled landing at the Manacapuru airport, less than 1.6 miles (1 kilometer) from the crash site.
Both the pilot and co-pilot died.
The plane was operated by Manaus Aerotaxi. Bezerra said the aircraft had undergone all of its scheduled maintenance inspections, and ANAC said its documentation was up to date.
Manaus Aerotaxi director Marcos Pacheco told the official Agencia Brasil news service that the plane took off with less weight than the maximum allowed, which is 5.7 tons.
The air force originally said the flight plan showed 20 people were on board, but some of the children may not have been listed. The twin turboprop plane has a capacity of 21 people, according to the Web site of Brazil's Civil Aeronautics Agency, or ANAC.