Flight From Miami Crashes in Colombia; At Least Seven of 164 Survive
Dec. 21, 1995
BUGA, Colombia (AP) _ Rescuers saved at least seven people today from the wreckage of an American Airlines jetliner that crashed with 164 people aboard into an Andean mountain, then burst into a fireball.
Human remains and wreckage of the Boeing 757 bound from Miami to the southwestern Colombian city of Cali were spread a mile across the crest of the mountain. Victims' clothing hung from trees, according to rescue workers.
But seven people survived the crash and explosion Wednesday evening near Buga, a city 40 miles north of Cali, Eduardo Arizabaleta, director of the Red Cross in Cali, said in an interview on RCN radio.
Mauricio Reyes, a 19-year-old Colombian business student at the University of Michigan, was breathing with an oxygen mask and had cuts and bruises. His brother, who was waiting at the Buga military base, hugged other relatives when he heard Reyes was alive.
``After all I've cried, what incredible joy,'' said Andres Reyes, 26.
The other survivors included a family of four _ Gonzalo Dussan, Nancy Delgado, their daughter Michel and son Gonzalo. Jackie Gonzales, 14, and a woman named Mercedes Ramirez were also rescued, RCN radio reported.
Another man pulled from the wreckage died at a Cali hospital today, five hours after being rescued, said Dr. Laureano Quintero, a doctor at the hospital. The man was originally identified as Raul Alfonso Hurtado, but Quintero said family members believed it was not him.
Colombian authorities and American Airlines initially said everyone on board was killed.
The cause of the crash, which happened Wednesday evening in an active rebel area in southwestern Colombia, was not known. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said FBI agents were headed to the site, but there was no indication that the crash was anything more than an accident.
Alvaro Cala, director of Colombian civil aviation, told RCN radio that the plane was 13 miles east of its flight plan. American Airlines Chief Executive Officer Bob Crandall confirmed that ``the flight path was somewhat to the east,'' but did not elaborate.
The airline said the Boeing 757 was carrying 156 passengers _ including four infants _ and eight crew members.
It was not clear how many Americans were on board, but American Airlines said the crew included Capt. Nicholas Tafuri, 57, of Marco Island, Fla., and 1st Officer Don Williams, 39, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. The cabin crew was based in Bogota, the airline said.
Among those booked on the flight were Paris Kanellakis, a Brown University computer science professor, his wife, Maria-Teresa Otoya, their daughter Alexandra, 7, and son Stephanos, 4, said a spokesman for the Providence, R.I., school.
Also believed to be aboard were the son, daughter-in-law and grandchild of former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre. The son, Francisco, was in his 30s. The other names were not available, and it was not known if any of them were among the survivors. A driver's license found in the wreckage bore the name Eric Befeler, 33, from Hialeah, Fla.
A farmer who walked for three hours to the site Wednesday night described a picture of devastation.
``I saw only pieces where the plane crashed and clothing hanging from the trees. There were no bodies left at all,'' Pedro Rosano told RCN Radio. ``The largest piece of plane remaining was only two meters (yards) long.''
Flight 965 lost radio contact at about 9:45 p.m. Wednesday while flying over Buga, a town 40 miles north of Cali, where the plane was headed. Cala said the plane was four minutes from touching down when it crashed. Police said they received telephone calls from people in the area reporting an explosion.
``We saw when the plane crashed against a mountain and then a huge fireball erupted,'' witness Carlos Buitrago told Radio Caracol.
There were no local reports of bad weather, and Crandall told employees at American Airlines' Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters, that conditions were good.
``There was neither wind nor rain,'' he said over a loudspeaker. ``Visibility was excellent. The crew was very experienced and fully familiar with the terrain and approach to Cali.''
``We are both horrified by the event and mystified as to its cause,'' he said.
Crandall later told a press conference that the airplane, which had Rolls-Royce engines, was delivered new in August 1991. It had an extensive maintenance check in January, and a less complete one in November.
Even if there were some survivors, the crash could be the deadliest involving a U.S. airliner since Pan Am Flight 103 went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 259 people from the plane and 11 on the ground. A terrorist bomb was blamed for that crash, which occurred seven years ago today.
It could also be the deadliest plane crash in the world this year.
The arrival of rescue officials at the crash site, 185 miles southwest of Bogota, was delayed by darkness and the mountainous terrain _ and by the danger of the rebels.
A police spokesman in Buga, Ricardo Canizales, described the region as a ``hot zone,'' or base of operations for leftist guerrillas. He said authorities did not travel to the site overnight because of the danger.
At daybreak, rescuers headed to the scene by helicopter and on foot.
Paul Miller, the FBI spokesman in Miami, said a one-page, unsigned letter was faxed Monday to The Miami Herald and The New York Times warning of bomb attacks against flights from Venezuela and Colombia.
Miller said the FBI was investigating, but ``we have no reason to believe there's any linkage to what happened.''
``The alleged threat in the letter was directed at aircraft coming from Colombia and Venezuela, not going to those countries,'' he said.
Most of the passengers were reportedly Colombians traveling to see their families for the holidays. Cali is home to 2 million people and the Cali drug cartel, which supplies most of the world's cocaine.
American Airlines said it would not release a list of passengers until relatives were notified. It did not know how long that would take.
At the airport in Cali, passengers' relatives held each other and cried as they waited for news of their loved ones. Some reportedly were so overcome with grief that they fainted. About a dozen other relatives waited at the military base in Buga.
``I'll stay here as long as it takes,'' said Jaime Bonilla, a 55-year-old dentist whose sister was on the flight. ``I'm going to wait to see the body for myself.''
The Boeing 757-200 is a twin-engine, medium- to long-range jetliner that can carry up to 239 passengers. First flown in 1982, it has a range of 3,200 miles.
In Seattle, Boeing spokesman Bill Curry said this was the first crash involving a 757, which has had an ``unblemished record. All of our thoughts are with families and friends of the passengers now.''
He said the company was sending a team including an investigator, a pilot and an aircraft structure expert from Seattle today.
Investigators also were headed to the scene from the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
In January, an airliner crashed near the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena, killing 52 people. One 9-year-old girl survived. The cause is still unclear.
In November 1989, a bomb exploded on a Colombian airliner flying from Bogota to Cali, killing 107 people. Drug traffickers from the Medellin cartel were blamed.
Last month, the FAA downgraded Colombia's civil aviation authority rating from ``acceptable'' to ``conditional.'' The FAA said it made the change Nov. 28 ``after finding areas which do not meet international safety standards.''
EDITORS: People seeking information about passengers on Flight 965 can call an American Airlines help number at 1-800-245-0999.