SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Rescue workers in Brazil pulled burned bodies from smoking wreckage and collapsed buildings on Wednesday after about 200 people were killed in the country’s worst air disaster.
The Airbus A320 was carrying 186 passengers and crew when it slid off a short, rain-soaked runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport late on Tuesday, hurdling a busy road before slamming into a gas station and cargo terminal.
An acrid haze hung over the crowded neighborhood near Brazil’s busiest airport as rescuers wearing masks put bodies in refrigerated trucks bound for the morgue. Dental records and jewelry were being used to identify victims.
The country’s second major crash in less than a year prompted sharp criticism about aviation safety and put the government on the defensive.
“We found out last night but nobody wanted to believe it,” Daniel Silveira, whose brother-in-law was on the plane, said as he fought back tears.
By late afternoon, firefighters had found 170 bodies. Three severely injured victims had been rushed to hospital but then died, raising the official toll to 173.
State officials said they did not expect any survivors from the flight operated by Brazil’s No. 1 carrier, TAM Linhas Aereas. One fire chief said the death toll could reach 200, counting casualties on the ground.
At the TAM cargo building hit by the plane, five workers were missing. Eleven were hospitalized.
TAM Chief Executive Marco Antonio Bologna said the plane was in perfect condition and flown by experienced pilots. But he avoided explicitly blaming the recently repaved runway, which critics say was not ready for use in the rain.
The airfield reopened on Wednesday using an alternate runway. But the mood was somber, with families of victims weeping in grief and some travelers reluctant to fly.
“A plane just crashed, it’s hard not to be scared,” said Jose Lenza, who opted to drive to Brasilia instead of flying.
Rescue teams found the cockpit recorder in the wreckage, which still spewed black smoke. Large yellow cranes helped lift rubble from ruined buildings.
Tuesday’s crash highlighted long-standing safety concerns about Sao Paulo’s airport, known for its slippery runways, and capped months of chaos in the country’s air transport system.
In September, 154 people were killed when a Brazilian Boeing 737 clipped wings at 37,000 feet with a private jet and crashed in the Amazon jungle.
That accident plunged Brazil’s aviation system into disarray as air traffic controllers, feeling they were being blamed for the collision, went on strike to protest poor pay and what they called unreliable radar and radio coverage.
Flight cancellations have become routine, frustrated passengers periodically storm onto runways to protest delays and Congress has been investigating bribes-for-contracts allegations at the national airports authority.
The TAM plane was trying to land on a surface that was repaved in June after officials tried to ban large jets over fears they could skid off the airport’s short runway.
Two smaller planes spun out on the surface on Monday at the airport, which is surrounded by South America’s largest city but was built in 1919 on what were then the outskirts of town.
Brazil’s airport authority said the resurfaced runway had not been grooved to drain rainwater. It had planned to complete the job on July 28 after new concrete settled.
Safety experts accused the government of recklessly rushing to reopen an airport crucial to Brazil’s economy.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been lambasted for bungling the aviation crisis, ordered federal police to investigate whether the runway was reopened prematurely.
In Brasilia, the capital, opposition leaders demanded the ouster of aviation officials and Defense Minister Waldir Pires, who oversees civilian air travel. Neither Lula nor Pires has appeared in public since the crash.
“Reopening a runway that was not ready is tantamount to murder,” Onyx Lorenzoni, a congressman from a leading opposition party, told Reuters. “They should go to prison.”
Additional reporting by Todd Benson, Mauricio Savarese, Raymond Colitt and Henrique Barbosa