MADRID A Spanish jet heading for the Canary Islands crashed on takeoff and burst into flames at Madrid airport on Wednesday, killing 153 of the people on board, the government said.
Smoke billowed up near Terminal Four from the remains of Spanair's Flight JK5022, an MD-82 jet bound for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, which broke into pieces in an accident which Development Minister Magdalena Alvarez said left 19 survivors.
The 15-year-old plane, with 166 passengers and nine crew, shot off the runway at 2:45 p.m. local time (1245 GMT), according to Spanair. The airline put the number of people aboard at a slightly higher figure than government officials.
Witnesses described a huge explosion.
"Only the tail was recognizable, there was wreckage scattered all over the place and dead bodies across a wide area. A lot of them were children," Ervigio Corral, who headed the emergency services' rescue effort, told reporters.
Survivors were flung from the plane by the force of the impact and landed in a stream, saving them from more severe burns, Corral said.
Alvarez said the cause of the accident seemed to be "an error in takeoff". But Spanish media and a source close to the situation said the plane's left engine, made by Pratt & Whitney, had caught fire.
The plane was originally due to take off at 1 p.m., but after moving away from the terminal and approaching the runway it returned because of a mechanical problem, a source close to the situation told Reuters. The source added he did not know what the problem was or what action mechanics took.
The flight was a code-sharing operation with Lufthansa serving the Canary Islands, a popular holiday destination for tourists from throughout Europe.
COLUMNS OF SMOKE
Lufthansa said seven passengers with Lufthansa tickets, four of them from Germany, had checked in for the flight, and a Canary Islands official said passengers included Swedes and Dutch.
Thick columns of smoke rose into the air and police blocked off both ends of the Terminal Four runway, where more than 20 ambulances and many fire engines were stationed.
"I saw how the plane broke in two and a huge explosion," said Manuel Muela, who was driving past the airport when the crash occurred, according to the newspaper El Mundo.
Police escorted tearful relatives of passengers past reporters and dozens of psychologists and social workers arrived at the terminal. Charred corpses were taken to a nearby conference centre to be identified.
"It's a rollercoaster of emotions," said a relative of one survivor, who told La Ser radio his name was Ricardo. "Also you feel powerless because the airline doesn't provide any information at all."
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero interrupted his holidays in southern Spain to fly to the crash scene, where he promised a thorough investigation into the causes of the crash.
"The government is deeply saddened, as are all Spaniards," Zapatero told reporters.
The Spanish Olympic Committee said the Spanish flag would fly at half mast in the Olympic village in Beijing. Spain's national soccer team wore black armbands and stood for a minute's silence at a friendly match with Denmark.
The crash appeared to be Spain's worst since 1983, when an Avianca Boeing 747 crashed approaching the same airport, killing 181.
Spanair, owned by Scandinavian Airlines Systems (SAS), has been struggling with high fuel prices and tough competition. It announced it was laying off 1,062 staff and cutting routes after losing $81 million in the first half of the year.
Hours before the crash, Spanair's pilots threatened to strike. SAS has been trying to sell Spanair since last year.
The MD-82 is a medium-range single-aisle plane, popular with regional airlines. It is a member of the MD-80 family of planes made by U.S. manufacturer Boeing Co.
American Airlines had to cancel 3,000 flights earlier this year after U.S. authorities ordered them to ground MD-80 series planes to check their wiring.
Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997, and the last of the MD-80 family rolled off its production line in 1999.
(Additional reporting by Paul Day, Jesus Aguado, Ben Harding, Inmaculada Sanz, Emma Pinedo, Bill Rigby and Simon Baskett; editing by Andrew Roche)