Search crews combed through charred rubble in central Cuba early Friday after a fiery plane crash killed 68 people, state media reported. The AeroCaribbean plane was carrying 40 Cubans and 28 foreigners, the state-run website Cubadebate said. None of them survived the crash. Photos from the local newspaper Escambray posted on Cubadebate early Friday showed rescue crews using heavy machinery to comb through the debris. Flames still engulfed part of the plane.
The flight was traveling from the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba and heading to the country’s capital, Havana, Cubadebate reported. The twice-weekly flight had originated in Port-au-Prince in Haiti and stopped over in Santiago. The Civil Aviation Institute of Cuba said Flight 883 lost contact with air traffic controllers around 5:42 p.m. Thursday (4:42 p.m. ET Thursday), Cubadebate said. The plane crashed in a rural part of the central province of Sancti Spiritus, Cubadebate said. Residents in the area said the plane made several sudden movements before plunging to the ground.
Authorities were still trying to determine what caused the crash, state media said. The pilot reported an emergency before contact was lost. It is not clear if bad weather was a factor in the crash. A tropical storm warning had been issued in Santiago de Cuba province. “At the moment, aviation and regional authorities are gathering the facts and details and have created a commission to investigate such a regrettable accident,” the Civil Aviation Authority statement said. (BBC) Preliminary reports indicate that the plane crashed near the Zaza Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Cuba, according to state media. Mexico sent members of its embassy staff in Havana to help with the identification of the crash’s seven Mexican victims, Mexico’s foreign ministry said.
All the doctors in Sancti Spiritus have been mobilized, according to a hospital worker who declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media. The hospital worker said she saw the plane crash from 3 kilometres (1.8 miles) away. “When it hit the ground, it burst into flames,” she said. (CNN) Emergency crews and local residents had to use bulldozers to cut through thick vegetation to reach the crash scene, Cuban media say. They pulled bodies from the wreckage. One eyewitness described the crash site as “a ball of flame in the middle of the mountain.” (BBC)
“This is very sad,” Caridad de las Mercedes Gonzalez, who was manning an airport information desk, said before officials announced that everyone had been killed. “We are very worried. This has taken us by surprise.” (CBC)
“It passed very low over my house, pouring out smoke and fire, a loud noise,” said Kenia Diaz, who was buying bread when the plane passed over. “Everybody came out running. My mama shouted ‘the war has come’. It scared everyone,” she said. (Reuters)
Another resident, Mirelda Borroto, said she saw smoke coming from the plane, which was clearly in trouble. “The plane was coming as if it was losing power, it wasn’t stable. He (the pilot) tried to raise it up and it began to spew white smoke,” she said. After the crash, “we were afraid to get close to it because we didn’t know what could be on the plane,” Borroto said. (Reuters)
A list of victims posted on the Cubadebate site comprised of 40 Cubans, nine pepole from Argentina, seven people from Mexico, three people from the Netherlands, two people from Germany, two people from Austria and one person each from Spain, France, Italy, Japan and Venezuela.
Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner ordered a plane to Cuba to retrieve the bodies of the nine victims from her country, according to the state-run Telam news agency of Argentina. The Argentine Foreign Ministry also proved a phone number for relatives of the deceased to call to obtain more information.
Cuban media was quick to release the passenger manifest, but details on the crash itself were hard to come by in a country whose press is tightly controlled. The state television newscast hours after the crash led with the news of an American ballet company’s visit to Cuba, then reported on a Transportation Ministry decree that said travellers would be reimbursed or rescheduled if their trips were interrupted by tropical weather in eastern Cuba. The announcers made no mention of the crash until they read a short statement toward the end of the broadcast. Subsequent newscasts just after midnight and in the early morning gave no details other than to repeat the same statement. State media gave no details on what happened to the airliner, saying only that the cause of the crash was being investigated.
The flight would have been one of the last leaving Santiago de Cuba for Havana ahead of Tropical Storm Tomas, which was on track to pass between Cuba’s eastern end and the western coast of Haiti on Friday. Cuban media said earlier that flights and train service to Santiago were being suspended until the storm passed.
The last plane crash in Cuba occurred in March 2002, Cubadebate said, when a plane carrying tourists went down in the central province of Villa Clara. Sixteen people were killed in that crash. Friday morning’s crash is the deadliest in Cuba since September 3, 1989 when a Soviet-built Ilyushin-62 heading for Milan crashed after take-off from Havana killing all 126 people on board and 40 on the ground.