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Colombia Jet Warned Before Crash

April 21, 1998

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Air traffic controllers warned a Boeing 727 that it was off course moments before the jet slammed into Bogota’s eastern mountain range, killing all 53 people aboard, an aviation official said today.

The pilot acknowledged the warning, but did not report any emergency before Monday’s crash, said Col. Julio Alberto Gonzalez, deputy director of the civil aviation authority.

A five-hour pre-dawn search of the Air France Flight 422 crash site today by 15 rescuers with 10 dogs yielded no signs of life, and investigators climbed the ridge after daybreak to begin a meticulous search.

Amid smoldering flesh and chunks of twisted steel strewn across a half-mile of mountainside just above the capital, rescue workers and police had worked through rain and waning light to recover bodies from the crash.

The 727-200, leased by an Ecuadorean company and flown by an Ecuadorean crew, had just taken off for the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, when it failed to make a sharp turn south and plowed into the fog-shrouded peak. It was raining lightly at the time of the crash.

Most of those aboard were Ecuadorean. Victims also included a Briton, a Swede, a Honduran, two Colombians, four Danes, six French citizens and six Italians, two of them on their honeymoon. Thirty-nine passengers had started their trip in Paris, changing planes in Bogota.

On Monday, ambulances and police cars with red-and-blue emergency lights whirring navigated up a narrow dirt path, turned to mud by a late afternoon rain. Hundreds of rescue workers, wearing rubber gloves and with handkerchiefs covering their mouths, fished identity cards, passports, credit cards and even a postcard of the Eiffel Tower from the debris.

They had to contend with hundreds of curious onlookers who climbed the ridge that rises 1,600 feet above Bogota. At least two people were arrested for looting.

``There’s nothing left, nothing,″ said Sergio Rodriguez, a 15-year-old who lives near the crash site. ``I ran when I saw the plane crash, but there’s nobody (alive).″

Rescue workers who found three pairs of teddy bear-patterned infant pajamas searched for a baby, but to no avail. Other debris floated from the tops of eucalyptus trees in the damp, cold breeze of the waning daylight.

After finding just five intact bodies, authorities called off the search at dusk Monday, when drizzle turned to downpour, extinguishing the last flames of the wreckage. They had no hope of finding survivors.

``There are hands, feet and legs. Most of what we have recovered are very small body parts,″ said a police officer at the scene, Fernando Molino. Some bodies were so maimed that the only indication of a victim’s sex were painted fingernails.

Marco Emilio Erazo, a spokesman for TAME, the Ecuadorean airline that leased the plane to Air France, said the pilots were retired members of the Ecuadorean air force and that the plane was not old.

The airline planned to fly in victims’ relatives from Quito. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said in Paris that a team of French investigators was sent to Bogota to help investigate the accident.

The jet crashed about 150 feet below the mountain’s summit in daylight _ at 4:47 p.m. _ three minutes after takeoff, said civil aviation spokesman Martin Gonzalez.

A controller said the plane was supposed to turn 90 degrees to the right after takeoff, but didn’t. The cockpit did not report any problems with the jet. Police located the plane’s flight recorder and took it down the 10,170-foot mountain in a police jeep.

Dionisio Sosa, an air traffic controller at El Dorado airport, said the plane was cleared for a departure pattern known as ``Girardot One.″ Planes following that pattern initially fly straight after leaving the runway, then pass over a radio navigation beacon called ``Romeo″ located 2,000 feet from the runway’s end and turn about 90 degrees to the right to continue on their way.

Instead, the plane continued straight for two miles and slammed into the ridge.

Sosa said the only voice transmission from the aircraft was a crew member giving the plane’s identification, ``Air France 422.″

The flight, one of three every week along the Quito-Bogota-Quito route, arrived in Bogota just an hour before it departed. Air traffic controller Carlos Mora said it was always flown by the same crew.

Mora said chances were remote that such an experienced crew would head straight toward the ridge, especially in such poor weather conditions.

In 1973, a Colombian passenger jet crashed into the same mountainside, killing 43 people. In 1995, an American Airlines Boeing 757 struck a mountainside in Colombia on approach to the Cali airport, killing all but four of the 163 aboard.

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