GUASIMAL, Cuba (Reuters) - Rescue workers have found the flight data and voice recorder from the Aero Caribbean plane that went down in flames in central Cuba, killing all 68 people aboard, Cuban media said on Friday.
The so-called black box will be turned over to investigators trying to determine why the twin-engined ATR turboprop careened from the sky, trailing smoke and flames, witnesses said, as the pilot fought to keep it flying.
The plane crashed on Thursday near the small town of Guasimal in Sancti Spiritus province, 210 miles southeast of Havana.
According to state-run news service AIN, officials said the aircraft was completely destroyed by the impact and resulting explosion, and all the victims’ bodies were badly burned.
A dozen of the bodies would be sent to Cuba’s Institute of Legal Medicine for identification, it said.
Of the dead, 40 were Cubans, and the remaining 28 foreigners from 10 countries. The foreigners, many thought to be tourists, were almost all South Americans and Europeans, and also included one Japanese.
Witnesses said the plane was flying low and appeared unstable before it veered down.
Residents heard the explosion and saw the flames from the crash, the worst in Cuba in two decades, which shattered the tranquility of the rural town.
“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 above.
“Everybody came out running. My mama shouted ‘the war has come.’ It scared everyone,” she said.
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.
On Friday, rescuers pulled bodies from the wreckage after using a bulldozer to plow through thick vegetation to reach the crash site.
Local newspaper Escambray posted a photograph on its website showing workers picking through the charred remains of shattered plane — a ATR-72-212 built by ATR, a joint venture of Europe’s EADS and Italian group Finmeccanica.
Authorities cordoned off the crash site and did not allow reporters to approach. A refrigerated truck and another carrying body bags were seen entering, witnesses said.
Aero Caribbean is a state-owned regional airline.
The plane’s manufacturer, ATR, confirmed the deaths of the 61 passengers and seven crewmembers.
“At this time, the reasons of the accident are still unknown,” the company said in a statement. It said it was cooperating with Cuban authorities in the investigation.
It said Aero Caribbean had operated the plane since October 2006. It was delivered from the production line in 1995 and had accumulated almost 25,000 flight hours in more than 34,500 flights, ATR said.
The plane, Flight 883, left Santiago de Cuba in eastern Cuba en route to Havana and went down at 5:42 p.m. local time (2242 GMT). After making an emergency call, the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers.
The foreign victims included nine Argentines. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez was sending a plane with relatives of the victims to bring home the bodies, an Argentine diplomat in Havana told Reuters.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also sent condolences.
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.
The air disaster was the island’s worst since 1989 when 126 people died in the crash of a Soviet-made Ilyushin-62 after takeoff from the Havana airport.
In the last significant air accident in Cuba, Canadian, British and German tourists were among 16 people killed when a single-engine Russian-made Antonov-2 biplane crashed into a reservoir in central Villa Clara province in March 2002.
Reporting by Marc Frank, Esteban Israel, Rosa Tania Valdes and Nelson Acosta; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech