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Ecuadoran Neighborhood Counts Blessings After Fiery Plane Crash

October 24, 1996

MANTA, Ecuador (AP) _ The buildings on one side of a street in this working-class neighborhood are blackened ruins. Part of an airplane wing lies in twisted shreds on a roof.

But some homeowners today were counting their blessings. The inferno that incinerated four city blocks when a Miami-bound cargo plane crashed Tuesday night remained just on the other side of 22nd Avenue.

Thirty people were killed and 80 injured when the flaming Boeing 707 jet sliced through dozens of homes only minutes after taking off from Manta airport. The three crew members, an American and two Colombians, were among the dead.

``We were lucky. It’s like we came back to life,″ said Shirley Cevallos, who fled her home barefoot and in her bathrobe when the plane crashed at 10:40 p.m. into nearby buildings, including a Catholic church across the street.

She remembers only the wall of flames and utility cables sparking wildly on the sidewalk as she and her elderly mother ran to safety.

Witnesses described the plane falling ``to the ground like a ball of fire.″ It obliterated a vacant three-story building, clipped the church bell tower and then ignited four blocks of homes in this city of 150,000 people that is 160 miles southwest of the capital Quito.

``There was an explosion like the world was caving in,″ Jorge Chavez said as he shoveled out broken glass and debris from his neighbor’s house, which was partially burned.

As many as 300 people were left homeless or returned to damaged dwellings Wednesday to begin cleaning up and rebuilding the barrio of La Dolorosa, ``The Grieving Virgin.″

The neighborhood, where about 35 homes were incinerated, takes its name from the church that was destroyed in the crash. The parish priest was among those killed.

Workers quickly recovered both flight data recorders of the Miami-based Millon Air cargo plane. But Interior Minister Frank Vargas Pozzos, who visited the site late Wednesday, said it would take a few days before the cause of the accident was known.

Today, officials from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer, were expected to join in the investigation.

Jose Quitana, a street vendor who witnessed the crash, said the plane ``could not get altitude and plunged to the ground wrapped in flames, like a ball of fire.″

President Abdalla Bucaram declared three days of national mourning following the tragedy.

It was Ecuador’s worst crash since a DC-8 cargo plane went down in Quito on Sept. 22, 1984, killing 75 people.

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