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Helicopters Ferry Rescuers To Crash Site, Families Await

December 22, 1995

BUGA, Colombia (AP) _ All day long, helicopters clattered off an army base toward the mist-cloaked mountain where a handful of people survived the world’s deadliest air crash of 1995.

Police and military pilots angled their crafts through ridges and ravines thick with forest Thursday, touching down in heavy rain near the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 965 bound from Miami to the southern Colombian city of Cali.

The Red Cross workers and police who trudged up the hill, their uniforms spattered with mud, found a grim sight _ body parts scattered amid debris on an Andean mountain crest.

``They’re in pieces,″ said one police officer after seeing some of the more than 150 people who perished in the Wednesday night crash. At least six people survived.

Back in Buga, a town 40 miles north of Cali near the crash site, dozens of anxious relatives waited at the edge of the landing field, straining against a line of military cadets whenever helicopters flew in stretcher-bound survivors. For a few, there was elation.

``After all I’ve cried, what incredible joy,″ said a weeping Andres Reyes when he learned his brother, Mauricio, 19, a Colombian business student at the University of Michigan, was alive. Mauricio was being treated at a Cali hospital.

For most, it was a torturous wait. After concentrating on the search for survivors, authorities planned to begin ferrying bodies from the crash site today.

``I’ll stay here as long as it takes,″ said Jaime Bonilla, whose sister was on the flight. ``I’m going to wait to see the body for myself.″

In a farmhouse near the wreckage, officials from the prosecutor general’s office stacked passports and belongings _ jeans, tennis shoes, tape recorders, a golf club, a small statue of the Virgin Mary _ into plastic bags.

There was the driver’s license of 33-year-old Eric Befeler of Hialeah, Fla. The wings of First Flight Attendant Pedro Pablo Calle. The passport of 7-year-old Alexandra Kanellakis, born in Massachusetts, her photo picturing a grinning girl in a flowered frock with a bow in her hair. The airline ticket of one Brian McMahon.

Rescuers were initially fearful of attack from leftist guerrillas, who thrive in the remote, mountainous terrain. A couple of truckloads of police, some with ammunition belts draped over their shoulders, parked near the crash site.

Local farmers who reached the wreckage before the authorities took their pick, pilfering belongings from the dead.

``The peasants are taking stuff away in bags,″ said Juan Carlos Millan, an official with the Cali prosecutor general’s office. ``Who knows how many possessions are lost.″

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