Hunt for missing plane turns to grim search for dead in Andes crash

Wednesday, January 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CUMBAL, Colombia (AP) _ Rescuers who reached the wreckage of an airliner that crashed into a glacier-capped Colombian volcano found shards of metal, tattered clothing, photographs and burned money, but no sign of survivors.

Colombian troops guided by peasant farmers trekked to the chilly, fog-shrouded peak Tuesday, but there was scant hope that any of the 92 people aboard the downed Ecuadoran airliner had survived. The TAME airlines Boeing 727-100 slammed into the 15,721-foot Nevado de Cumbal volcano Monday morning.

Fog and freezing temperatures on the Andean peak allowed only a brief investigation of the site, just over the Colombian border from Ecuador. The search for bodies _ and the black box, or flight data recorder _ was to begin in earnest Wednesday.

The airliner took off from Quito, Ecuador, on Monday morning but lost radio contact as it approached its first stop, the Ecuadorean town of Tulcan, near the Colombian border. At least 43 passengers were believed to be Colombians bound for the plane's final stop, Cali. The nationalities of the other passengers was unknown.

By nightfall Tuesday, more than 100 rescuers _ along with farmers and passengers' family members _ had set up a base camp near the foot of the volcano, preparing for an early-morning ascent to the wreckage.

Those who had been to the crash site near the volcano's summit reported seeing wreckage strewn over a wide area and dismembered bodies. Local people who participated in Tuesday's search returned with pieces of the plane and the passport of one of the victims _ a Colombian nun.

``The plane is destroyed. There are no survivors,'' said Alvaro Bucheli, mayor of Cumbal, a Colombian town in the volcano's shadow.

Villagers had reported hearing a plane flying through thick cloud cover and a huge explosion. Colombia's air force chief, Gen. Hector Velasco, said the plane exploded upon impact and a large rock broke off from the volcano and landed on the wreckage.

Heavy cloud cover had hampered initial efforts to locate the wreckage by air. Images of the crash site on Colombian television Tuesday evening showed tattered clothing and shards of metal scattered across a steep, rocky slope enveloped in thick mist.

Jaime Aza, a local farmer who was spending the night at the base camp, hoped his knowledge of the tricky terrain might help in the salvage effort.

``It's easy to get lost in these clouds, even for people who are from here,'' he said.

Ecuadorean firefighter Edwin Vera said his crew was equipped with ropes in case searchers needed to rappel into ravines to recover bodies. He doubted all of the victims could be located.

Gen. Cesar Naranjo, head of the Directorate of Civil Aviation of Ecuador, said searchers were looking for the black box, which investigators hoped might offer clues about why the plane crashed.

Authorities said the plane may have been off course in the fog as it approached Tulcan. The wreckage is about 15 miles northwest of the town. The flight path would typically arc through Colombia on the approach to Tulcan, but it apparently veered too far west, where the Andean peaks loomed.

``We assume that because of the bad weather, (the pilot) momentarily lost visibility, tried to find the airport, but ran into the mountain,'' Velasco said.

Soldiers and farmers in rough woolen ponchos walked five hours to reach the crash site. Farmer Pablo Emilio Marcillo said the fog was so thick, the rescuers had trouble seeing one another.

``It looked like the airplane exploded,'' Marcillo said, holding a chunk of the plane in his hand. ``There were pieces of flesh. The people were unrecognizable.''

Marcillo said he saw photographs and burned 20 and 50 dollar bills in the wreckage. He and several other farmers returned to Cumbal with a 2-foot-long piece of wreckage and the ID card of the Colombian nun.

The plane was carrying 83 passengers, including seven children, and nine crew members, TAME said.

A spokeswoman for the Colombian air force, Maj. Angela Rodriguez, said authorities had ruled out a possible guerrilla attack. Colombian rebels have been active in the border area, but there have been no known cases of the guerrillas trying to shoot down an airliner in Colombia's 38-year war.

It was the deadliest airline accident in Colombia since an American Airlines jet slammed into the mountains near Cali in December 1995, killing 159 people. Four people survived that crash.