At least 153 people were dead last night after a plane departing from Madrid´s Barajas airport swerved off the runway and burst into flames. The Spanair aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 carrying 172 passengers and crew to the Canary Islands, was attempting to take off when it developed a fault. One of its engines was said to have been in flames shortly before the incident.
More than 300 firefighters, paramedics and police called to the crash were confronted by a grim scene. "The plane was completely broken and full of bodies," one airport worker told El Pais.
"There is nothing left of the plane; it is totally burned," said a civil guard officer. "It´s the closest to hell I´ve ever seen. The corpses were boiling and we were burned as we retrieved them."
Some reports suggested that 20 children and two infants were among the dead.
Smoke filled the air around the airport and could be seen eight miles away in Madrid city centre. Helicopters were called in to dump water on the burning fuselage as desperate attempts were made to rescue survivors. A makeshift morgue was being set up at Madrid´s main convention centre, officials said.
The Spanish development minister, Magdalena Alvarez, whose department is in charge of civil aviation, confirmed that 153 people had been killed, with 19 survivors. A Spanish emergency rescue official said many of the survivors were in a critical condition in hospital.
It was Spain´s deadliest air disaster since 1983, when a Boeing 747 operated by the Colombian airline Avianca crashed near Madrid on its landing approach, killing 181 people. Alvarez said yesterday´s crash was an accident, but confirmed earlier reports that the plane had aborted one takeoff for checks, then later tried a second takeoff.
Earlier reports in Spain gave differing accounts of the likely cause of the crash. The newspaper El Mundo reported that the plane had broken in two after coming off the runway, with witnesses describing "a ball of flame". El Pais, quoting a source with the national airport authority, Aena, said the plane´s departure had been delayed due to technical problems and was "probably caused" by faults with the engine. The plane only just managed to lift off the runway before crashing, the official said.
Consuelo Cabrera, the grandmother of one passenger, said that shortly before the accident he phoned her to say that the plane "had experienced problems" before departure, and that the passengers were waiting to see whether they would have to change planes. She said she had since been unable to contact her grandson, Marcos Hernández, 22, who was travelling with his girlfriend.
Other reports suggested that the plane crashed after its second attempted takeoff, leaving skid marks across the runaway. According to Aena, it had been due to take off almost two hours before the accident, at about 13.05 local time. The crash happened at 14.45.
Last night the Foreign Office was unable to say whether there had been British passengers on board the plane, a codeshare flight to Las Palmas with Lufthansa´s LH255. "We are on our way to the airport to check the flight list," a spokeswoman for the British embassy in Madrid said.
Distraught families of those thought to have been on the flight gathered in terminal 2 at Barajas airport, pleading for information. At Las Palmas airport on the island of Gran Canaria, more families gathered. Some were escorted into a room away from the press and comforted by Red Cross psychiatrists.
Spanair said it would not release the names of the passengers until their relatives were informed.
The prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, broke off his holiday in southern Spain to return to Madrid, heading straight for the airport.
Accident investigators will be examining the debris in the coming days.
Last night TV and radio stations in Spain were asking questions of Spanair, the country´s second largest airline carrier, which is known for its ageing fleet of aircraft. Radio Punto, quoting a former pilot, said the airline had a good safety record.
In a statement on the its website, Spanair said only that it "regretted to confirm" that one of its planes had been involved in the incident.
Four days ago a Spanair flight from Lanzarote made an unexpected stop in Gran Canaria after it got into difficulties; the company later said that it had been a maintenance stop rather than emergency landing. Reports at the time questioned the safety of the plane, also a McDonnell Douglas MD-82. It was not clear last night whether the incident involved the same aircraft as that which crashed yesterday.
Sergio Allar, Spanair´s commercial director, said the company had "as yet no information" to release about the crash, adding: "We cannot speculate. The investigation is the responsibility of the civil aviation [authority]."
Inquiry may focus on reports of fire in left engine
The focus of the investigation into yesterday´s crash may concentrate on one of the plane´s engines. Reports suggested the aircraft that crashed at Barajas airport was on a second attempt to take off, although it was unclear at what stage the first attempt was abandoned. The aircraft apparently managed to get airborne but some eyewitnesses reported an explosion and there was said to have been a fire on the left-hand engine which caused the aircraft to crash and its fuselage to break up.
Kieran Daly, the editor of Flight International, said it would be premature to speculate on the cause of the accident, but in the absence of dangerous weather conditions a likely source of the problem could be inferred, whether or not the witness reports were accurate.
"Accidents on takeoff are relatively rare," he said. "The obvious suspicion is some kind of engine problem. The suspicion is that for whatever reason the aircraft had insufficient power to pull away."
The plane that crashed was a McDonnell Douglas MD-82. Daly said there had been "one or two nasty accidents" with the MD-80 series where the engines were to blame. While in general terms the most likely cause could be described as a "mechanical failure" the list of specific problems with the engine could be "endless". Daly said he was puzzled because the aircraft should have been able to pull away on one engine.
It was confirmed last night that five experts from the United States´ National Transportation Safety Board would be flying in to assist the Spanish investigation. There are 861 models of the MD-80 series still in service with a total of 57 airlines. The design first came into service in the 1980s.
In March, two US carriers, American Airlines and Delta, voluntarily grounded their fleets of MD-80s while their wiring was reinspected for compliance with federal maintenance rules.
At the time, analysts stressed that the move did not indicate the planes were unsafe, but they said that it nonetheless raised questions about their reliability given that the planes were ageing.
The MD-80 series is rated the second safest in the world by AirDisaster.com, with nine incidents in some 20m flights where a fatality was recorded that was "solely due to the operation of an aircraft".
The MD-82 carries a maximum of 172 passengers, and has a cruising speed of 504mph with Pratt & Whitney engines.
Spanair is a small operator catering for the tourist market which runs a number of charter flights. The company is owned by the Scandinavian carrier SAS.