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Investigators Examine Wreckage of Plane that Crashed on Highway

August 1, 1987

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Investigators on Friday examined the charred wreckage of a 35-year-old cargo plane loaded with competition horses that crashed into rush-hour traffic and exploded, killing at least 40 people.

The death toll rose late Friday as forensics experts and relatives identified body parts of more victims, according to Elsa Valencia, a spokeswoman in the Federal Attorney General’s Office.

She said 30 bodies had been identified and turned over to relatives, and that 10 others remained to be identified.

Twenty-five 25 people were hospitalized after Thursday’s crash, said Felipe Flores, spokesman for the Attorney General’s office. Nearly all the victims were on the ground.

Those hospitalized included the four-member American crew of the Boeing 377 and five of the eight Mexican passengers who were aboard, officials at the American-British-Cowdray Hospital said.

Two of the passengers were listed among the dead, including one who died Friday. The condition of the other passenger was not immediately known.

At least 26 cars were destroyed or damaged at the site, 13 miles from Mexico City’s international airport.

Sixteen of the 18 finely-bred jumping horses from the Mexican Equestrian Federation died immediately. One horse was so badly burned a police officer at the site had to destroy it. Another horse, badly injured, was later found munching grass in an embankment and was also destroyed.

A charred, crate-size horse stall bearing the words ″Animal Air Service″ lay upturned in a muddy field farther up the road from the crash site.

The horses were bound for equestrian events in Culpeper, Va., and Hamilton, Mass., and the passengers included their handlers.

The plane was flying to Miami when it crashed in rain Thursday afternoon on a highway southwest of Mexico City less than 10 minutes after takeoff from the airport.

Airport officials said the plane was operated by Belize Air International, a charter cargo service.

Airport Director Carlos Padilla said the cause of the crash would not be known until the investigation is complete. But he said authorities have pieced together a version of what happened from Guadalupe Pina, one of the surviving passengers.

Padilla said the plane had problems from the time it took off and lost contact with the control tower. Witnesses said the plane’s tail was on fire as it went down, while other accounts place the fire in the forward part of the craft.

″It seems a short circuit in the plane caused the fire,″ Padilla told reporters at the crash site Friday. ″The pilot then tried to make an emergency landing that produced the crash.″

The government news agency Notimex reported late Friday the pilot of a Mexicana Airlines jet told air traffic controllers the Boeing 377 appeared to have problems raising its landing gear after takeoff.

A transcript of control tower conversations released by the Federal Communications and Transportation Department quoted the Boeing pilot as telling the tower, ″We have a problem. I’ll call you in a minute.″

According to the transcript, the Mexicana pilot told the tower, ″Listen, tell the Stratocruiser (the Boeing) to bring up the landing gear, because the plane isn’t rising. Ask him his altitude... He’s really low.″

The area where the plane crashed is mountainous with little level ground.

The plane struck a restaurant and a two-story building with 20 apartments, destroying one end of the building, and knocked down a pole supporting high tension wires.

The plane, cars parked in front of the building and part of the restaurant caught fire. Victims were pulled from cars and from the apartment building.

″I thought the plane was going to fall on our houses, but then we saw how it stopped and fell on the house,″ said Alfredo Guadalupe Lopez, who lives in Cuajimalpa, a suburb of Mexico City where the crash occurred. He referred to the apartment building.

Ruben Rodriguez Henriquez, 20, one of the team’s top horsemen, died shortly after noon Friday from his injuries, said Rogelio Villanueva, director of medical services at the American-British-Cowdray Hospital.

Rodriguez was in the plane with his father, Ruben Rodriguez Sr. ″just to be with the horses, in case the horses needed them, and to take care of the paperwork and the quarantine in Miami, Fla.″ said a friend of the family, who spoke on condition he not be named. The elder Rodriguez was hospitalized.

″Both father and son told me that people in the plane knew they were in trouble and were going to crash,″ said another family friend, Ricardo Ramirez.

He said the elder Rodriguez had even rushed into the cockpit.

Tony Phillips, manager of Belize Air International in Miami, identifed the crew members as pilot Frederick Morr, 49, of Hialeah, Fla., co-pilot Robert Banta, 61, of North Bay Village, Fla., and flight engineer Forrest Wootten, 55, of Dade County, Fla.

Officials in Mexico City identified the fourth crew member as cargo master Bryan Stewart, 23, no hometown available.

Doctors said Morr, Banta and Stewart were in good condition. Wootten’s condition was not immediately available.

″They’re still very upset by the impact and we fear shock, so we’re keeping them very quiet,″ said a doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Twelve of the dead have been identified, authorities. All were Mexican.

Officials at the scene said damage from the crash extended over about 1,900 square yards.

A Boeing official described the plane as virtually obsolete.

″I didn’t think any of those things were still in the air,″ said John Wheeler, public relations manager for Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. in Seattle, Wash. He said the Pratt and Whitney engines on the 377 had been out of production for about 25 years.

Phillips said the plane was built in 1952 but had only 9,000 hour of flight time. He said the plane was leased from a Miami company called Agro Air.

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