Death Toll Could Rise in Madrid Crash

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Susana Vera / reuters

Relatives of victims of the Barajas airport crash prepare to leave for Madrid's IFEMA fairgrounds, where the remains of the dead are being kept

It took the better part of the day, but by Wednesday evening, the dimensions of the worst Spanish air accident in the last 30 years were clear: of Spanair flight 5022's 172 passengers and crew, 153 were dead. The other 19 people onboard were all injured, many of them seriously enough that the death toll is predicted to rise.

Although the cause of the crash has not been confirmed, the MD-82 plane was taking off on a flight to the Canary Islands from Madrid's Barajas airport when one of its engines apparently caught fire. "The nose of the plane and the front wheels had lifted," said Public Works Minister Magdalena Alvarez at a press conference Wednesday. "Whether the rear wheels got off the ground is still being investigated."

The plane hit the ground, splitting in two and sending flames and smoke up into the sky, and a few survivors to the dusty ground. Rescue workers describe the scene as horrific. According to one who was leaving the airport yesterday evening, his boots covered in soot, "It was like a scene from hell. Bodies were everywhere."

Although authorities quickly ruled out terrorism, the mysterious behavior of the plane has raised plenty of questions. Veteran pilot Antonio Luna had returned the plane to the terminal soon after its original 13:20 departure because of a technical malfunction. According to a member of the pilots' syndicate SEPLA, a checklight for the craft's temperature controls came on. A source in Spanair says the problem was fixed, and the plane was again cleared for takeoff a little over an hour later. At 14:45, it crashed.

"It would be foolhardy at this point to rule out the checklight [problem] as a contributing factor," says Howard Wheeldon, an aviation expert at BGC Partners. "But it's a fairly common occurrence." Still, the fire that witnesses say they saw coming from the left engine would not, by itself, have been enough to bring down the plane. "Regulations governing all craft ensure that even after losing power in one engine, the plane still has enough power to take off," says Wheeldon.

That leaves a number of possibilities. A total power failure, perhaps caused by a bird strike in one or both engines, tricky wind or temperature conditions at takeoff, and pilot error are all factors under consideration. "Given the rear position of the engines on the MD-82," adds Wheeldon, "if there was an explosion there, it may have meant the loss of control of the rudder and tail."

A low-cost subsidiary of SAS Airlines, Spanair has fallen on hard times lately, and it recently announced cutbacks, including that of 100 pilots. Its current economic status will surely raise questions about whether cost-cutting measures contributed to the accident. The airline has stated that the 1993 craft passed its most recent inspection in May of this year.

While authorities work to unlock the information contained in the plane's black box, recovered last night, family members of the victims made the painful trip to the makeshift morgue that had been set up at the city's main convention center. The fire that erupted once the plane crash was so intense that many of the victims' bodies are burned beyond recognition. It was so intense, says Wheeldon, "that it's a miracle any survived at all." Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero declared three days of mourning and promised government support for the families of the victims.